Alone Surrounded by People

E. M Forester wrote a novella entitled “The Machine Stops” long before people thought about social media. The story describes a time in the future when everyone is isolated in their own homes but still connected to each other via a wall size display screen. People live their lives through their interactions with the machine. Forester goes on to describe the isolation people feel when the machine finally fails.

The New York Times recently published a review of a new book about how teens use social media. The book seems to be filled with the usual generalizations one would expect when describing an entire generation. Still, the review made me think about Forester and about how teens are using social media such as Instagram and Twitter. Apparently many of them are now deserting Facebook since the older generations have finally taken the plunge. Who wants to go to a place that’s so uncool that Dad and Mom reside there?

What strikes me is that it’s hard for teens to physically get together, particularly before they are old enough to drive on their own. Where can they go? We see malls filled with teens, but only until security people begin to roust them in fear that older shoppers will flee. Fast food places? Managers there don’t want teens and tweens congregating and occupying tables for hours after purchasing only a Coke and fries.

So, teens and subteens communicate now via social media. They spill out what’s happening in their lives almost on a minute by minute basis. “Reading XYZ and on page 42. Great read so far!” Friends provide instant feedback. If a teen reports he or she is sad about something, friends chime in with support. Of course, there’s aways the possibility that a bully will take the opportunity via social media to attack someone when they are most vulnerable.

So, symbols of various emotions color a teen’s tweets and Instagram descriptions. Communities and sub-communities form. It’s really quite a complex web if you think about it. I once knew an adult who was carrying on six or seven different concurrent instant message sessions. That pales in contrast to the number of social media interactions teens and subteens are carrying on.

Facebook has been looking at artificial intelligence software that can analyze not just faces but also social interactions. Corporations are salivating at the possibility of analyzing teen and sub-teen social interactions and determining buying behavior so that they can target advertising.

I wrote an unpublished novel once entitled “A Thousand Voices in My Head”. It described a time when companies would identify a person by their IP address and attached buying patterns. People routinely would have chips embedded in their heads that gave them 24-hour Internet connectivity. As people neared stores, these stores would broadcast targeted messages such as “Your favorite detergent now is on sale” or “We’re offering you a 25% discount at your favorite clothing store, only five minutes from your current location.”

So, I see a time in the not too distant future when teens and subteens will find their social media territory overrun by greedy adults who want to take advantage of the opportunity to sell to a captive audience. I almost feel like whispering to teens, “enjoy your friends and your time communicating together now, because in the future you’ll probably wind up having to communicate around dozens of targeted ads.” Just mention a pizza in your message, and suddenly you’ll find a targeted pizza ad. Talk about having sex, and a condom ad will appear. Big brother will be watching, and he’s out to make a fast buck.


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