Zen Moment: Social Media isn't a "thing," it's a state of being

Social media is a way of life. It's time to go with the flow.

Posted Mar 13, 2009

It’s okay if you nod knowingly when people talk about social media but haven’t got a clue what it really is. I’ll let you in on a secret: No one does. That’s because it isn’t a “thing.” It’s a way of life. As much as you may not want to hear this, it’s also something that’s here to stay. The only choice is to get with the program. 

In contrast to uni-directional mass media, social media is technology that allows people to participate and to interact. This turns out to be pretty popular, since humans are hard-wired to interact with their environment. Piles of psychological research show that humans are social animals that need to be connected to others, that interpersonal connections are essential for mental and physical health, and that while connection styles and needs vary, they are equally important. It should be no big shock that we see people connecting all over the place using social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogs. It seems like new applications for connecting emerge daily and, by the way, they are not restricted to the computer.

With interpersonal connections such a big theme in human lives, why are so many people surprised, or even worried, about this trend?

While it’s hard to keep up with all the new technologies, it’s even harder to adjust cognitively to the continual evolution of the media landscape. This is particularly true for those of us (individuals and businesses) who are, as Marc Prensky famously described, digital immigrants. In other words, these technologies are not our native language. Bruce Wexler, in Brain and Culture, talks about the difference in adaptability between young and old brains to new environments and ideas. Can old brains learn new stuff? Sure. It’s just a lot more work to unlearn something so we can put new information in, than it is to just learn it the first time. Having to reconfigure your basic assumptions about how the world works can be unsettling, triggering all the unpleasant side effects of cognitive dissonance, like anxiety, fear, name calling, and a strong desire for carbohydrates.

Social technologies are changing the rules of play. Social connections have enormous impact on how information is passed along and how trust and credibility is established. But we shouldn’t be daunted! We can all engage and flourish using social technologies. We can take a Zen approach and release our illusions about the ability to control information and embrace the participatory nature inherent in the social net or we can take Tobin and Braziel’s advice and treat social media like a cocktail party where we lurk around the edges until we find a good place to join in. Several approaches work. Hanging out on the sidelines, however, smugly dismissing this as a passing trend or casting disparaging remarks on how social media will destroy the ability of people to develop appropriate social skills, will work about as well as opening a store on Route 66 when the superhighway is going in miles away.

In coming postings, I will talk about some specific applications, trends and technologies. As someone who works from a positive psychology perspective, what interests me most is not so much how to use social technologies, although that's certainly important and makes the effort more effective, but understanding how and why they can fit and make a positive contribution emotionally, cognitively and practically to our personal, social, and professional lives.

Suggested reading:

Tobin, J., Braziel, L. (2008). Social Media is a Cocktail Party: Why You Already Know the Rules of Social Media Marketing. Cary, NC: Ignite Social Media.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6). Retrieved September 15, 2007. from http://www.marcprensky.com.

Wexler, B. E. (2006). Brain and culture: Neurobiology, ideology, and social change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.