Before I start, I’d just like to make it clear that this isn’t going to be some Chris Crocker-style advocacy on behalf of social media. To be honest, despite the fact that I am a regular user of various social media platforms, I’m really not much of a fan. I use ‘em, but I really don’t like ‘em all that much.
At best, they’re a distraction, but at worst they actively work to reduce the quality of people’s personal relationships and their lives more broadly. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that many’s the time that I’ve sat down to a day’s work and before starting, opening up my browser for a quick check of Facebook before getting stuck into writing, only to crawl out some time later, wondering where the hell the morning went.
There’s been a lot of attention lately on the negative influence social media has had on the way people engage with each other. Its detractors claim, quite justifiably in my opinion, that social media supplants genuine, meaningful communication with simplistic, superficial interactions. It’s also accused of leaching our lives of meaning by encouraging an endless, unfulfilling pursuit of ephemeral affirmation, in the form of positive feedback loops, echo chambers, ‘follows’ and ’likes’. Don’t even get me started on “fake news”!
Hell, even some of the people responsible for creating the complex, interconnected environment in which nearly all of us are now embedded are seriously conflicted by how it’s unfolding. Consider, for example, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who is one of the more prominent people to come out in recent times expressing regret for their role in the ongoing degradation of the fabric of society, which he attributed to the inherent, deliberate design and continuing rise of social media platforms such as the one he helped create and refine.
So yeah, social media is just another modern-day symptom of humanity’s tendency to deflect from the real, substantial issues of the day and instead focus on transient and unsatisfactory gratification and the justification of one’s own opinions. But despite all that, it does actually have some good points and can even be quite useful, as we have recently discovered during the latest leg of our family vagabonding adventure around the Iberian Peninsula.
For the past eight months we’ve been a nomadic family, having sold most of our possessions, rented out our house in South Australia and taken up a transient lifestyle exploring Europe. In an effort to fund this slightly utopian lifestyle, we started a blog. It’s both a tool to communicate our adventures to remote friends and relatives, and a tool by which we’re hoping to make some small income and extend our adventures a little bit longer than our original savings would allow. With this goal in mind, we’ve also developed a social media presence as a means to disseminate our efforts to as broad an audience as possible. We selected Twitter and Instagram as our channels of choice (please feel free to visit, like and/or follow both, while I go and wash my hands). In today’s hyper-networked world, this is just a necessary evil and it’s one that we’ve embraced both consciously and cautiously, knowing full well that it’s basically mostly bullshit.
I guess at this point I should start my defence, even if it does make me feel just a little bit dirty…
Three recent events have shone a light for us on some of the positive aspects of social media, which have made me feel just a little bit better about our participation in this labyrinthine and often dystopian modern digital landscape.
1] Back in our pre-nomadic lives, we subscribed to and paid a considerable amount for a wide range of sedentary services, including healthcare, Internet and phone connections, and our local automobile club. We suspended or cancelled the majority of these services when we hit the road, but after a few months we discovered that one of them had continued to withdraw a regular monthly fee, despite the suspension of our membership.
That was money we needed, to pay for essentials like tapas, Airbnb accommodation and surfboard hire, so we immediately went online to find out how we could a) stop the payments, and b) organise a refund of the money that had already been erroneously withdrawn. This particular organisation still hadn’t even enabled online payments by the time we left Australia, so it was no real surprise when we discovered that the only way to contact them was via phone – they didn’t even have a generic email address. Remember, we’re on the other side of the globe, so given the amount of time we’d have to spend on hold during a typical phone call to this organisation, we’d end up spending the equivalent of what had already been withdrawn just waiting to speak to someone.
But hold on, do they have a Facebook account? Of course they do – everyone does these days.
A quick message to their page and within four hours the payments had been cancelled and the wheels were in motion for the payments to be refunded. Hashtag-winning!
2] Not long ago, a week in fact, we were returning home through the dark, winding alleyways of Lisbon after a day of exploration, when I looked down and spied a wallet on the cobblestones.
“Bugger,” I thought. “Someone’s going to be annoyed that they lost that.”
A quick scan of the contents revealed an array of credit cards, ID and around €90 in cash. Thankfully, I’m an honest kind of guy. I determined that the best course of action would be giving the wallet to the first policeman we bumped into or, failing that, going to the station first thing the next morning and handing it in there. We didn’t encounter any police on the rest of our walk, but when we arrived home I took another look at the owner’s ID – a Californian driver’s licence with an LA address. “What the hell,” I thought. “Let’s do a quick Facebook search.”
I kid you not, within 30 seconds I’d found the owner’s profile and sent him a message. Within 10 minutes we were talking to each other via the phone function in Messenger. And within 45 minutes I was in a nearby plaça shaking hands and returning a wallet to a very relived Californian. He was leaving Portugal for the UK the next day, but hadn’t realised he’d lost the wallet until he got my message. He hadn’t even had time to cancel any of the cards! This was a genuine good news story with a happy outcome that would have been virtually impossible to accomplish in the days before social media.
3] The day after this happened we suffered every traveller’s nightmare by being pickpocketed. One of Lisbon’s light-fingered low-lifes managed to undo two zips on my wife’s handbag and remove €20 and one of her credit cards without her even noticing. It wasn’t until a concerned citizen drew her attention to it that she realised she’d been robbed.
Thankfully it was only a small amount of cash and the card was one we hadn’t used even once while travelling, but we still needed to cancel it post-haste before the Artful Dodger had a chance to rack up a debt that we’d have to chase through our travel insurance – an experience that nobody looks forward to.
Once again we jumped on the laptop, only to discover that while we could put a temporary block on the card through the bank’s online portal, we couldn’t cancel it without speaking to someone in person. Sigh.
There was a reverse charges number that we could call, but not relishing the prospect of sitting around on hold – time during which the thief could be using the card – as well as the very real possibility of being charged for the call by our Spanish mobile provider (who really reads the T&Cs when they sign up?), we once again turned to social media for an alternative solution.
About one hour after we’d sent the first message through Facebook, my wife’s phone rang and we discovered a representative of the bank, calling to help her through the cancellation process. It took about 10 minutes, during which the rep was very helpful, expressing both sympathy for our circumstances and envy at our adventures outside of this one unfortunate event.
By lunchtime we were back out the door with a renewed caution of petty criminals and a grudging sense gratitude and respect, both for our bank (a much more sophisticated breed of criminal, I’m sure you’ll agree) and social media – two entities for whom we’d previously only felt contempt and a lingering resentment at having to engage with them at all.
So there it is. Despite its countless failings and ongoing role in the erosion of of individual lives, personal relationships and the very structures that bind our modern society together, social media – specifically Facebook in this instance – does have some benefits, particularly for international travellers.
The scoresheet is still heavily weighted in the negative, but these three examples offer a fragment of redemption, at least in our eyes. In the end, however, no digital conversation can or will ever beat genuine, face-to-face interaction, a fact that is reinforced for us daily as our vagabonding adventure continues.