When I heard that President Obama was going to answer questions from the unwashed masses on Reddit.com, I could hardly contain my excitement. For the first time in generations, an American president would be coming into the homes of Americans in a public format to chat with, and not just to, us. "Bring on the hot dogs and marshmallows," I thought, "cause here comes an FDR-style fireside chat."
The president answered a smattering of popular questions posed by Redditors in this 30-minute Q&A; the session was, to put it lightly, a success. The overwhelming traffic that flooded in crashed Reddit's servers. After four years in office, Barack's still got it.
I read through the session as best I could and even cooked up a S'more in my microwave (thus making my bag of marshmallows un-returnable) before realizing that this was, for better or worse, no fireside chat. FDR's fireside chats, for all their many virtues and nostalgia, were ultimately one-way communications. By directly answering questions from the audience, Obama broke through the fourth wall and involved Americans directly in a conversation.
The fourth wall, for those of you who didn't inadvertently crash through it by falling out of character and swearing at the audience in your high school's production of Alice in Wonderland, describes the conventional barrier that separates performers from the audience. It's not surprising that social media helps ordinary people cross this barrier, but it is exciting to see the Powers That Be choose to engage average Joes. For whatever cynical political calculations that go on behind closed doors about how to appeal to the electorate, the occasional chance to ask a subjective question is welcome. We've seen countless examples of how two-way communications add a refreshing texture to national events, whether it's at the Democratic National Convention this week or last year's Revolution in Egypt. If the whole world is a stage, social media is an endless supply of tickets.
So if I have box seats to the tragicomic human drama unfolding all around the planet, why don't I feel good about all of it? I want to love the fact that I can ask the president if he thinks Lebron is better than Michael Jordan ("No" is the right answer). I want to love the fact that I can tell hundreds of people that I'm still scraping marshmallow goo off the walls of my microwave. But I can't.
Instead, I find myself at a bar with three of my coworkers, unwilling and maybe unable to pry myself away from my iPhone long enough to talk to any of them like they're Real Human Beings, and I suspect that they feel the same way. I am, at best, ambivalent about being hyperconnected. I can get a blow-by-blow of the EPL's (English Premier League) transfer deadline day, but that same freedom has made it so I can't carry on a conversation with the people across the table from me. Have we become, with all due respect to the TV show Arrested Development, technological never-nudes?
Tech writers around the world have extolled the virtues of social media, but I see it as a curse as much as a blessing. Conversations are dying, and social media isn't helping. Yeah, I'm stoked that I could theoretically ask Obama about how Reinhold Niebuhr helped shape his faith and his political views, but it distresses me to think that this level of ersatz exchange closely resembles how I communicate with my dearest friends. The same social media that brought the president to my stove top cook-off jamboree is the same social media that has pushed my friends -- even the ones who live in my same zip code -- out of reach.
Frankly, it's hard to compete with technology that's designed to be too good to put down. In a grudge match between my willpower and the empires of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, I'm not ashamed to admit that the odds are in their favor. Honestly, how do you compete with thousands of people -- who are quite good at their jobs -- who want you to use their addictive products? What is a social media addict to do? How can you have a 12-step program for social media if everyone is hooked? It's likely that a virtue-based solution will need to make way for self-imposed "no use" rules in the name of maintaining a sphere for human interaction. Even though I work in the tech industry and it is literally my job to be connected, perhaps it would be best to set the expectation among my friends and coworkers that I am not to be reached by any means between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. except in the direst emergencies. Many companies have adopted similar rules in the name of promoting a balance between work life and family life; maybe it's time for individuals to do the same.
How do we find a way forward that lets us enjoy the benefits of social media while maintaining the civility and depth of good ol' human communication? I, for one, am planning on liquidating the Costco-sized bag of kosher franks left over from Obama's Reddit session by inviting my buddies over to a smartphone-free barbecue.