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Social media as the new TV

Nothing has really changed. Take away the tools with which young, active people connect to one another, isolate them from the world they know, and it's going to be a shock.

The Internet Generation doesn't watch much TV. They don't listen to the radio or read newspapers.

Horrors!

People of all ages have been using media for generations, but the boundary between media and relationships changes in the Internet Age. (Picture from ZDNet's fine Between the Lines blog, a piece about Internet addiction from 2008.)

Because the Internet is more than a medium -- because it can be used for any type of interaction with any person, program or group -- we immerse ourselves into it more deeply than anything that came before.

We have also become accustomed, over the last 4 decades, to the language of addiction. We apply it to everything -- to food, to exercise, to work, to whatever choices we make habitually. We say we're addicted. When our habits are removed from us we're at sea, we get jittery, and we talk about withdrawal.

So the results of the A Day Without Media study from the University of Maryland should not surprise, and should not shock.

But that's not how our traditional media is reacting to it.

Instead even the most staid news services are taking both the language and result at face value, wringing their hands over our kids' Internet Addiction.

"The students did complain about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players," said project director Susan D. Moeller. "And many commented that it was almost impossible to avoid the TVs on in the background at all times in their friends' rooms. But what they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away."

Well, duh! Had I been told, 35 years ago, to go a day without TV, the telephone, newspapers, and music, I would have been a little crazy too. Had my father been told, in his youth, to disconnect himself from the culture around him for 24 hours, it would have been hard. Had my grandfather, growing up in New York City, been sent to the country for a day in his youth, he would have been as jittery as a cat on speed, too.

Nothing has really changed. Take away the tools with which young, active people connect to one another, isolate them from the world they know, and it's going to be a shock.

Groups of all kinds have used this knowledge for centuries in order to gain conformity with shared goals. Many companies grew by taking their salesmen out of the field for a while, isolating them in meetings to inculcate shared goals. It's a technique IBM President Thomas Watson Sr. developed into a form of high business art.

Withdrawal from normal life has always been a wrenching change and an opportunity for social control. What the University of Maryland did was to replicate the process of withdrawal, without offering any replacement for normal life.

What is most interesting here is what the kids considered their base medium. It was the Internet. Online connections represent more than a mere medium, like TV or newspapers. They are how we engage.

Why are Tweets more compelling than face-to-face contact? Because they're asynchronous. They don't depend on physical interaction, or even verbal interaction like a phone call. I speak when I want, you speak when you want, and the result is communication, on terms acceptable to both sides, regardless of where we happen to be, or what else we happen to be doing.

Rather than be shocked, I think we should be amazed and even pleased. Imagine the opportunities that lie before this generation of students. To stay connected after they leave school, to connect intellectually with just about anyone, to form and leave groups of interest on a whim.

What I want to know is what they might do with this power?

One more point. The illustration at the top doesn't really describe what is happening. It shows a person sitting in front of a screen, which sits on a desk, and to which the person is attached through their fingers and eyes, with their full attention.

That's not how our kids roll. They can be connected through a single hand, using just a portion of their attention, unconnected to any wire. Wow!

Some days I really wish I were 18 again. (Thank goodness I have an 18 year old, with his own trips and dramas, to disabuse me of that notion.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com