The Legacy of Social Networking

Posted on July 28, 2010 by 3 Comments

My favorite teacher in high school was my sophomore history teacher, Marvin Reed. History for me has always been akin to storytelling, and that was exactly how Mr. Reed taught. He sat there in his chair in the middle of the classroom and, without notes or an overhead projector, dove into detailed lectures about the wars of Europe, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the crazy royal families. Yet, the most important thing I learned from Mr. Reed had nothing to do with history.Letters as a Legacy

In his classroom, Mr. Reed had various sorts of historical artifacts. He collected several of them when he was living in Europe in the 1960s — others had been given to him. These pieces included both the Berlin Wall and — thanks to my Japanese teacher’s gutsy defiance of Chinese law — the Great Wall of China. But the most interesting artifact in the classroom had little to do with history and everything to do with legacy. It was a giant ball made completely of plastic grocery bags in the middle of his classroom.

“The ball,” as Mr. Reed referred to it, had grown over the years from the size of a basketball to twice the size of your average yoga ball. What does a giant ball of plastic grocery bags have to do with legacy? Mr. Reed’s idea was that long after our generation had passed, archaeologists of the next generation — or, by chance, if aliens came to Earth — would find this huge ball and know that intelligent life once existed. The ball would be something left behind long after we were gone. The ball is the most vivid exemplification I have of both future and past all in one. History is created by the stories and artifacts we leave behind, so that they may, in turn, continue to tell our story long after we are dead.

For me, this begs the question of how my generation, Generation Y, will be remembered?

We remember our grandparents or great grandparents by finding old love letters or journals and diaries that they wrote during WWI or WWII. Through these personal letters, we get an intimate snapshot of what their lives were like and who they were as people. However, with technology and communication becoming more and more synonymous every day, it does not seem so far-fetched to say our children and grandchildren will relive the stories of our lives through old hard drives and Internet files.

It slightly disturbs me to think my children will be able to access my old Facebook status updates to see what my thoughts or activities of the day were. They will be able to see firsthand my pictures and interests, as well as everyone I was “friends” with via social networks. The truly scary part, however, is the possibility that they will remember me not through an intimate account of my personal thoughts and details of my life events, but rather through a public forum that gives a watered-down description of who I am.

Social networking is so thoroughly integrated into our society that it is not just my generation that has adapted to it but also my parents’ and even my grandparents’ generation that have bought into it. Even e-mail is less frequent because all my friends and family have the ability to keep up with me by writing short messages on my wall, viewing my pictures and seeing my daily status updates. “Real time” has become so paramount that people take pause in milestone moments to inform the world of said milestone moment through status updates.

Moreover, how we represent ourselves through these mediums is interesting as well. The operative word in public forum is public. Much like when we are going on a first date or meeting new people, we tend to want to look our best. It’s no different online. Social networking — despite how much we all want to deny it — has a large component of vanity to it. How many of us have gone through our Facebook profiles and untagged all the unflattering photos others have taken of us? Or spent a precarious amount of time editing and re-editing our interests and “about me” sections? It’s still us — but it’s the more dressed up, “show-and-tell” version of us.

Social networking has made itself a staple in our society and has proven that it is here to stay. That’s all fine. But let us not forget to leave something else behind. These “artifacts” could be diary entries that we wrote thinking no one would ever read them, handwritten letters to relatives who don’t know how to use e-mail, and maybe even choosing to leave the bad photos on Facebook along with the good. Because for a generation that has so much potential, we don’t deserve to be remembered solely through our status updates.

Image by Muffet.

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