Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 6:41 pm | Fair 71º


Jamie Stiehm: With Our Devices and Vices, How Social Is Social Media?

In our semisweet summer in Washington, D.C., far from sandy Nantucket Island and grassy Bedminster, N.J., I have some behavioral notes on my fellow humans here — residents and visitors alike — stored up from autumn, winter and spring.

First, “situational awareness” is eroded by the devices we depend on to make it from moment to moment, place to place. Bumping into people’s heads on the sidewalk happens. We put religious faith in our GPS to navigate our way through the days and streets — and somehow know them less well.

Situational awareness, by the way, means knowing what’s going on in front and in back of you — close up and at a distance. Sideways, too. You’ve got to keep your head up and know the environment. The Army teaches soldiers that skill, but it’s also useful for civilians.

Everyday casual conversations in public are suffering a slow death in the nation’s capital. Like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, it’s the absence of casual chats I miss.

I’m old enough to remember striking up conversations, crossing borders of age, race or situation, with perfect strangers on the subway, the bus stop, outdoor cafés, the airport, you name it.

Now we have an unspoken code that you are interrupting if you speak to somebody staring at a device.

Lost in translation are the seemingly small “visits,” as my grandmother called chance chats, passing the time of day.

Public transportation is how I get around, living at a scenic crossroads. So the morning drill is: get on the bus at Massachusetts Avenue, barely acknowledging the neighbors waiting alongside you, because you were all looking up the time the bus was arriving on your app.

Once on, you pass a map of the world — rows of embassies on both sides, from the British to the South African. A Winston Churchill statue faces a Nelson Mandela statue right across the stately avenue. Vice President Mike Pence lives high in a white naval residence. At the foot of the curving downhill ride stands the Islamic Center of Washington and the fancy Cosmos Club.

That’s what you miss if you don’t look out the window — and I am as guilty as any.

If you look around inside the bus, full of smart, good-looking people, chances are every single one, suited up for work, is buried in a smartphone. Same goes for the Metro trains. Any given hour, hundreds — or thousands — of people are sharing physical space. But each seems lost in a small-screen digital realm.

Eye contact with the guy or girl of your dreams? That takes two. Mr. Darcy might be on that train while you’re on social media.

How social is social media? I ask myself late at night when I hang with fun people I’ve never met or last saw at a graduation. The journalism diaspora is also found in these pages. I hope to meet more of my 1,126 friends someday, but it’s a job keeping up.

To be fair, I’ve met a precious few new friends on Facebook. But here’s what it does when all’s said and done: It strengthens weak ties but loosens strong ties. It gives the illusion that you have a world full of friends.

It’s like an opiate for an anxious age with fragile bonds and no certitude.

On the fourth floor lives a graduate student from California. We text back and forth, but haven’t seen each other’s place. We leave things now and again. The vanilla pumpkin marshmallow candle was a charming gift. Just sayin’ — texting opens little windows, but can create an invisible fence.

Barriers popped up in my newsroom in Baltimore, where the city desk used to sound like “​Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Telephones ringing — yes, telephones — the police scanner crackling, shouted questions and laughs all day long. One reporter spoke in Russian to the spies he covered. Then it all went quiet and online.

Things got lost in translation, and that human touch can’t be measured.

Worst of all, Twitter helped create an angry monster. President Donald Trump’s rise from that realm is living proof that social media can be deeply anti-social in the end.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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