Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is Social Media Destroying the Ability to be Sociable?

On nearly every business news site this morning you will find Facebook as one of the top stories. Analysts are speculating that Facebook will go public this coming week (or at least by the end of Spring) and begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange. If it does so, Facebook, the "social networking" company will undoubtedly become one of the largest public corporations in the world. It is estimated that the value of Facebook could be close to $100 billion. Wow!
Like many of you, I also have a Facebook page. However, the more time I spend on it the more I think that so-called social media outlets are actually hampering our ability to communicate. I think we are slowly losing our desire (maybe not all of us) to reach out and have real communication with others that are a part of our lives. I think we all know of people who can send you a text message on your phone or an email, but somehow never bothers to answer their phone when people call, or seem startled when their phone rings and they actually have to have a conversation.
I was recently published in The Clinch Mountain Review. The following short story is a prime example of the impact that social media and technology has on our lives. Hope it rings a bell.

The Human Touch

Copyright 2011

            Davey Duncan had spent the better part of an hour driving through the “Highlands” of Southwestern Virginia to meet a few friends he had reconnected with on Facebook. Setting up his own webpage was one of those things that his sister had talked him into although he wasn’t necessarily the kind of guy who would email very much or try to have a social life by the new standards set by technology. He always considered himself more of a face to face kind of guy. After all, he didn’t have a cell phone hanging on his hip pocket when he was growing up in the 80’s like everyone did today. All his old pals knew how to be real friends back then, not fake “friends” on some dull web site. They would call someone’s house and ask for the person they were looking for. There was no nervous twinge in their voices when somebody actually answered. He chuckled as he thought that it nearly took an act of Congress to actually get his old high school friends together.

            He reflected back to his younger days as he drove toward Bristol. You know what was more insane than actually calling someone, or answering a call that didn’t have a name attached to it on the caller ID? Davey and his pals would bike down to the area by Jim’s Body Shop that they called “the Humps” and ride around that artificial dirt track without helmets and without knee pads. They would even do some crazy kid stuff without the benefit elbow pads. He had the scars to prove it over a few drinks if any of his childhood friends decided to call him out on it.

            Davey had recently moved back to Richlands and was making his way out for the first time in months without his two kids or his wife with him. He pulled up a chair next to Rick, Dan, Melissa, Traci, and Amy, a friend of Melissa’s from work. She graduated the same year as the rest of them, but only graduated from their rival high school. Davey had just moved back from Atlanta and had lived long enough in the city that he had forgotten just how rapid the rumor mill worked as they sat down and the gossip immediately began to fly about the “real” reason someone or other got divorced, stories of cheating husbands and wives, and who’s kids were way to reckless because of lousy parenting.  

            After a few minutes of telling his story about leaving his job in the city and moving back home, Davey quickly changed the conversation to the good ole days. He realized that the older he got, the more reminiscing became a favorite pastime of most of his old friends that constantly left comments on his Facebook page.

            It was a cozy atmosphere at Macado’s on State Street. He hadn’t been to a Macado’s since living in Radford during his college years, but had many fun memories of hanging out in there with friends. Ironically, the music in the place was perfectly tuned to his high school years as Murray Head’s “One Night In Bangkok” poured through the sound system as they ordered their drinks and dinner.

            It didn’t take Rick and Tracie, both recently divorced and now dating, to bring up the party at a friend’s house in Hidden Valley during their senior year. Someone had spiked the punch bowl with a bit too much Schnapps. Davey had gone straight to the party after a football game, only to realize he was drunk a half hour into arriving at the party. He was the talk of the high school on Monday. He didn’t remember much that happened, but he certainly heard about it.

            Melissa found herself laughing between every other sip of her Fuzzy Navel. She vividly remembered Davey hitting on her best friend at the time and spilling his drink all down the front of her shirt. Being short tempered, she pushed him and then slapped him. The sound of her hand across Davey’s face was loud enough to stop all conversation in the room. Rick had rushed over to rescue the poor soul before he spilled the rest of his drink. Davey continued to enjoy himself, oblivious to his own embarrassment. He woke up in the corner of his own garage the next morning in his underwear, dollar bills stuffed in them.

            “What?” Davey said innocently between the laughter. “I was young and I needed the money,” was the only appropriate response he could think of. He’d heard this story a million times, but the humor of it was always there for those around him. He had to laugh a little as well just knowing that the legend lived on and had probably been retold for years, especially at the two previous class reunions he had avoided.

            Rick and Tracie, both notorious for their wild antics during high school and college, served up their stories of true love, children, and then divorce as they grew bored with their respective spouses over time. They had the unusual divorce scenarios where there were no hard feelings, or at least not enough worth discussing.

            Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” began to play when Melissa, Davey’s old high school flame, had brought up the time that Rick became the talk of their small town during the summer before their senior year. Rick was a well known prankster. He had been sent to the principal’s office on multiple occasions for making teachers the recipient of his pranks. Although he committed them anonymously, everyone knew Rick was guilty, they just couldn’t prove it.

            Rick had been sitting in Dairy Queen one hot July afternoon with a couple of his friends when he spotted Mrs. Wolsey, his eleventh grade English teacher, sitting across the parlor alone. She was known to be the hardest teacher in high school, the biggest grouch, and entirely no fun unless you played for the football team and needed a passing grade. Her reputation for “working” with football players was something of pure speculation around the high school halls, but seemed to be widely accepted.

            She had gotten up to go to the restroom when Rick noticed the waitress place her bill and a mint by her unfinished drink. Rick quickly got up and grabbed the mint, replacing it with a special kind of candy that turned your teeth blue. He had ordered it from a gag magazine earlier in the year and had yet to use it.

            Mrs. Wolsey returned to her table, popped the candy in her mouth and then went to pay her bill. Rick knew that the candy actually worked when the cashier burst out in laughter after Mrs. Wolsey walked out the door. The only problem was that Mrs. Wolsey actually wore dentures and no one knew it. That summer was the first time that folks in town actually saw her without her teeth. The stains apparently wouldn’t come out and she had to wait over a month for a new set that arrived just in time for the school year. She knew Rick had left the candy on her table and told him so one afternoon when she passed him in the hallway at school. Luckily, he had passed her class with a “C” and could breathe a sigh of relief that he didn’t have to retake her class again during his last year.

            During dinner and the conversation about old times, Davey noticed something that would have been considered rude and peculiar five years ago, but was now more commonplace than he liked. Everyone except him had their cell phones setting by their plates. Every few moments one of them would either take a photo to instantly update their Facebook page, or would be texting someone else even while telling a story of yester-year.

            “No One is to Blame” by Howard Jones came over the sound system as they were finishing up their drinks and calling it a night when Davey realized something. He found it somewhat amusing that he could barely get any of these folks at the table to actually answer their phones when he chased them down in the first place, but yet they seemed lost without being able to text someone or update a web page at will. Once they were engaged in conversation they all seemed to be the same folks he grew up with. However, getting them to be fully engaged was tough. They were all pleasant enough, just like he remembered them. They just seemed on the constant edge of distraction, as if they needed distractions in order to function.

            Davey got into his car and drove back to his hometown. On the way back he laughed a little more as good memories came back. But he couldn’t help but wonder. Are we all destined to live in the past or did he have friends out there who had emailed him that actually believed that their best days were ahead of them? Would he ever get a call back from several other friends he had left messages for or was he doomed to just get emails and text messages on his phone?

            He wasn’t sure if his had been the last lucky generation to grow up as kids without the quick advance of technology robbing him of his ability to actually communicate face to face. Nowadays it seemed that people didn’t even know how to date without the help of a computer. Could humanity become so numb that they stop listening to their soul, lose sight of morality, or just move on to the next video game, web site, or reality television program that grabbed its attention? He didn’t know, and it wasn’t the best time to contemplate the problems of mankind. He had finally made it home after an hours’ drive.

            “Hey, sweetie,” he said to his wife as he walked into the den and dropped his keys on the coffee table.

            “Hello?” he asked again.

            “Oh, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said as she typed furiously on her cell phone keypad. “I was just texting my sister.”

            “Why don’t you give her a call?” he asked.

            “Not now. Maybe tomorrow,” she answered.

            Davey rolled his eyes and looked over at his two sons prancing around in front of the television, game controllers held in an iron grip as explosions erupted from the screen.

            “Did you two guys have fun tonight?” Davey said loudly.

            There was no answer, unless you counted grunts and gyrations as syllables. Davey just sighed, picked up a book he had been reading and sat down in his favorite leather chair.

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