Friday, January 25, 2013

How we use (and don't use) the Internet

The other day, Brian and I were having a conversation about Twitter. I forget exactly how it started—I think we heard a story on the radio that involved someone tweeting something completely ridiculous—and we started talking about how we don't really "get" Twitter. I mean, what is Twitter, anyway? What is it for? As far as I can tell, all you really do with it is let the entire world know what you're doing at a particular moment. Now, this may be useful if you're, say, in the middle of a war zone or a massive natural disaster, but I think for most of us, most of the time, our updates would look something like "I'm having a sandwich" or "I just finished cleaning the bathroom." Does anyone really want to know that?

Our problems with Twitter extend, to a lesser extent, to social media in general. Neither of us has ever felt any real need in our lives to be on Facebook, or YouTube, or any other social networking site. And I admit, I do sometimes wonder if this means we're just a pair of old fogeys who are set in our ways and can't get the hang of all this newfangled technology because it's not what we grew up with. But the thing is, that criticism would also apply to pretty much the entire Internet. When we were kids, there was no e-mail, no Wikipedia, no blogs, no Google, none of the Web sites I named in my recent Thrift Week posts as indispensable tools for ecofrugal living. Yet we have embraced all of these developments without hesitation.

The thing is, all the technologies I named above—and all the others that we use on a regular basis—are tools that help us to do things we would do anyway. E-mail is just a faster and cheaper way of sending letters. Online bill payment is faster and easier than writing out and mailing a check. A retail website is easier to search and order from than a mail-order catalogue, and its inventory is updated more regularly. Blogs serve more or less the same purpose as magazines, but there's a much greater variety of them and most of them are free. Web sites can take the place of a daily newspaper, a phone directory, and a whole shelf of reference books. Even a bulletin board or chat room is the equivalent of—well, a chat. It's just a way of chatting with people you wouldn't get to meet otherwise on topics of mutual interest.

All these ways of using the Internet save us time, money, or both, compared to doing them the old-fashioned way. Social media, on the other hand, don't seem to have an old-fashioned version. For instance, what's the real-world equivalent of posting an update on Facebook? Standing on a rooftop yawping to the world about how you got a new job or developed a foot problem? Taking out an ad in a newspaper? Are these things you would actually want to do, if there weren't a Facebook to do them with?

Maybe this is the way in which I really am an old fogey. I see the benefits of new technology for meeting existing needs; I just don't really see why the invention of a new technology should create a need that I didn't have before.
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