Life, death — and social media

By Phil Youngblood

What is the meaning of life? I don’t actually ask my students this question quite like that, but in essence I am discussing it with my freshman class as a prelude to how to use a spreadsheet to develop a personal budget.

What do we really need? How do we get it? What do we do with it? What are the consequences? The students mentioned shelter first, then a vehicle, food, clothing, insurance, entertainment, school…

I found it interesting that having a vehicle came before food and clothing. I thought that perhaps they were ordering expenses from highest to lowest until I realized the purposes a vehicle serves, that is, to connect us to others, whether at work or to family or friends or the public sector in general.

In a survey conducted for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants earlier this year, more than 40 percent of adult respondents said they would sooner cut back on food than give up their smartphone (though only a few percent said they would not pay their utilities or rent first before their phone).

Regardless of whether you feel contacting someone other than face-to-face is more connecting or more isolating (if you grew up with smartphones, you are more apt to believe the former – ask our students), staying connected is a real need, a real part of the “meaning of life” for us. It might not be surprising then that social media such as Facebook and Twitter and YouTube have such appeal to people from all walks of life around the world. The allure of being able to so easily reach out to the world to share both the mundane and the profound can be addictive.

A year and a half ago I wrote about “The Impact of Social Media” as events of what became known as the Arab Spring were unfolding, about how people, particularly younger people, were using social media to form virtual communities and to share ideas or provide the content for those ideas. Social media was used during the Arab Spring of 2011 to form communities of like-minded peoples. What we have run into during the Arab Fall of 2012 — just made that up — is a clash of cultures that has occurred when people of very different minds meet on social media. While initial reports about the recent events in that part of the world and beyond focused on a trailer about some obscure movie that no one has seen as the reason for it, the date chosen for the initial events, their orchestration, and the widespread nature of the events point otherwise. But what I found fascinating once again was the part that social media played in all of this. The universality of social media brought that video into people’s homes around the world. It gave people a channel to talk about it and to take action together. And it was one of the channels the Libyan prime minister and others chose to condemn the violence that ensued. Social media demonstrated it can be used just as easily to help us tear ourselves apart as to help bind us together. Our use of social media became an instrument of death as well as of life.

Note carefully I did not say social media did this or did that. Social media is a tool and we have a choice — like with other technologies before this — to use this powerful tool for socially beneficial or social destructive purposes. As with other technologies in the past, starting with the invention of fire or the earliest tools, all the way up to our world of today where many value technology above food, we can choose to blame the technology or we can instead work on ways to help the social aspects of our lives catch up with the technology. Change has happened. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. We cannot “take back” a world that no longer exists. In early Spring 2011, I referred to Thomas Gray’s quote that “ignorance is bliss.” That may have been an option for the 18th century in which he lived, but ignorance is not an option today. We must embrace change or suffer the consequences.

This is my sixth article in a series this year on the social aspects of “computers in your life.” I invite your feedback, dialogue, and differing opinions on this topic.


E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at

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