April 25, 2011

Thoughts on the future of social media

[Writer’s note: With graduation swiftly approaching and school/internship/extracurriculars/job searching eating away at my time, I’ve admittedly been slacking on updating this blog. But by no means have I stopped thinking of things to write about. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media. And as I struggled to boil down my thoughts into one clear and cohesive post, I had a better idea. So with this post, I’m kicking off a (short) series about my thoughts on social media. Stay tuned for my opinions on social media in journalism!]

If you don't know what any of these icons mean, you might want to find out. By my estimates, social media sites aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

It may seem strange to begin my commentary on social media by talking about the future. But really, it makes the most sense. Social media sites are evolving so quickly that understanding the future of social media may be the key to understanding the role it plays in the present.

Here’s what I mean: A few weeks ago, a rumor popped up on the Internet about Google unveiling a new social networking site called Google Circles. When I heard about it (appropriately, through Twitter), I was intrigued, so I did a little bit of research. It all stemmed from a presentation that ex-Google researcher Paul Adams gave on real-life social circles and how social media sites can improve to better imitate the boundaries and social connections we maintain offline.

It was, of course, just a rumor in the end. But it got me thinking about the future of social media. There’s always a lot of hype about how Facebook and Twitter et al. are changing the way people communicate. And it’s difficult not to find some truth in that view. I think this blog post by Jess Moore at USA Today College makes some really good points about a generation raised with social media: expressive, impatient, ever-connected…these words really do define our generation in a way that few others do. As a generation, we communicate in radically different ways than our predecessors.

But here’s where the philosophy behind Google Circles comes in. Paul Adams makes an invaluable point: When you really try to understand the way that people use social media sites and what they gain from using them, it’s clear that the evolution of social media is dictated by the way we humans communicate and socialize with each other — not the other way around. It all starts with understanding real human connections.

To see that, all you have to do is look at the direction social media sites are headed. Recently, I went to see a presentation by David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. He talked about the evolution of Facebook and social media, and how Facebook is in the midst of a transition from stand-alone website to a sort of platform for the entire Internet. It’s creeping onto more and more of the Internet these days, with “Like” buttons installed on thousands of websites every day and Facebook Connect automatically linking comments on outside websites back to your Facebook page.

So bit by bit, everything you do on the Internet is becoming linked to your real identity – and your “real” (read: offline) life. Social media sites are leading the charge toward an Internet that more closely resembles, well, everything else.

It’s a trend that’s worth paying attention to. Of course, there are those who still scoff at the importance of Twitter (although maybe those revolutions in Egypt and Libya have quieted them down a bit) and those who will claim that Facebook is systematically destroying the kind of real, deep friendships that make life worth living.

Well, here’s what I say to that. First, there is no denying that we are in a social media world, so we might as well get used to it. Secondly, call me an optimist, but I don’t think Facebook is obliterating genuine social connections or replacing true friendships with online personas. In fact, I think we’re moving toward an Internet that’s more like a mirror of the real world, mimicking the ways we interact in real life and making communication more efficient and effective.

Google Circles may not be anything real. But Paul Adams’ ideas (and the obvious trajectory that social media sites are on) raise some crucial points about the future of social media and the Internet in general. Who knows…maybe, someday, we won’t need to distinguish between Internet activity and “real life.”

March 1, 2011

Talking to strangers

With so many interesting people in this world, maybe there's one childhood lesson we could all stand to ignore.

Last summer, I read an article about simple ways to bring more happiness to your daily life. You could guess most of them: take a short walk outside at lunch; make friends and family a priority; set aside an hour a week for relaxing “me” time. But one suggestion in particular stuck with me: At least once a day, strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Something really struck me about that little idea (and not because it goes against everything our mothers told us as children.) Once a day, saying hello to someone you would ordinarily ignore – it’s so simple, yet who does that? The truth is, it can be easy – a little too easy – to close ourselves off in our personal bubbles. We come into contact with so many interesting people every single day, but with work and school and the stress of day-to-day life, it’s easier to live alongside all those billions of other people than to actually live with them.

Thinking about this, I was instantly reminded of my granddad, who passed away almost a year ago. He was a living example of the say-hi-to-a-stranger philosophy:  This man could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. I swear, he did not take a trip to the grocery store without making a new friend. It wasn’t that he was excessively outgoing, per se – more so just relentlessly friendly. He took genuine interest in everyone he met, and this drew people to him.

He’s obviously passed these genes along to his daughter (also known as my mom). She’ll go out to run a quick errand, then come back two hours later because she got caught up in a deeply personal conversation with the woman behind her in line at Barnes & Nobles. “People just like to tell me things,” she jokes. “I guess I look approachable.”

But even with these examples in my family, I’ll admit it: I’m just as guilty of  closing myself off to the outside world as anyone. It was only when I really thought about it that I realized how much of an impact the smallest interaction can have.

I still remember the conversation I had with the man working the desk at the post office last fall who helped me figure out which kind of envelope I needed to mail my study abroad documents to the French embassy. (What can I say; I’m a child of the technology generation. Snail mail confuses me sometimes.) After he explained to me where to apply the address sticker and what kind of postage to use, we ended up chatting briefly about the semester I was hoping to spend in France.

Maybe my apprehension about the whole ordeal of studying abroad was more apparent than I realized. But right before I left, he looked me in the eyes, gave me a warm smile, and told me that I was going to have a wonderful time in France. “You could get along anywhere,” he said, “because you have a great personality.” It was a lighthearted compliment, borne of about two minutes of small talk. But it absolutely made my day.

We could all take a page out of my grandfather’s book. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth discussion on the state of the economy or a lengthy debate on cake vs. pie. All you need is a minute or two to form a small connection, as long as you’re genuine. Say hello to the person in the elevator. Compliment your barista’s necklace. Ask the secretary you pass by every morning how she is – and actually pause to listen to the answer.

Perhaps this is my Southern upbringing coming out. I’ll own up to that. But even the most incurable yankees have to admit: It’s hard to underestimate a little bit of Southern hospitality. It’s those genuine connections, however small or fleeting, that remind us that we’re all human.

In journalism, there’s a popular adage: Everyone has a story. Whether or not that’s true, everyone at least has something to say. And as long as they’re not offering you candy from a windowless white van, it might do us some good to listen every once in a while.

February 22, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

I couldn't publish this post without at least one Lewis Carroll reference.

Curiosity has a less-than-stellar reputation. Not only did it kill the poor proverbial cat, but its synonyms include “meddlesome,” “nosy” and “intrusive.”  Even Alice didn’t always have such a great time with it.

It’s understandable why this connotation exists, but I would like to make a case for curiosity. For one, consider the word itself and the fantastic interaction of its two meanings:

  1. Inquisitive
  2. Novel, strange, or unexpected

What kind of thing is most likely to attract our interest and curiosity? Well, something that’s novel, strange or unexpected, of course. So when you think about it, the things that are most likely to incite curiosity are the things that are curious themselves. The word is its own self-perpetuating loop. Which is just pretty cool.

And then there’s its real-world impact. As a journalism student, my future profession is founded on a healthy sense of curiosity. (And by healthy, I mean annoyingly strong.) But not just that: curiosity drives innovation. It fuels learning. It’s one of those rare, innate qualities that makes us human.

I can be defined in many ways. I am a student, a journalist, a Tar Heel, a lover of language and travel and music. But if I had to pick just one thing that defines me, I think it would be my curiosity. Really, it’s because of my curiosity that I am all these things. It drives just about everything I do, especially the things I am most passionate about.

Which brings us here, to this blog. My point is: I am constantly noticing things and learning things, because my curiosity about this strange and unexpected world we live in just never seems to be satiated. And this blog is essentially a place for me to write about things that I notice — musings from my small base of experience. Most of these will probably have to do with language, journalism, culture, psychology or travel, because these are the things that interest me the most. Or I might write about some other things. It’s my blog, okay?

But I promise to try my best to write things that are at least mildly interesting, and I hope you will follow and enjoy it at least a little bit, and maybe think about something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

If Dorothy Parker was right, then I suppose I’m doomed to a life of curiosity. And, well, I suppose that’s all right. This blog would definitely be really boring otherwise.