My kids set up a Facebook account for me 10 years ago in one of their last attempts to get me to join the wired world. It was a flat failure. My Facebook page has a ghost town feel about it; you can sense the tumbleweed blowing up the main street.
I have an old friend who insisted I get on Twitter to increase my ‘reach’ and sell more books. He spent his career jetting around the continent dispensing advice to powerful people about how to use the latest technology to win friends and influence people. He was an ‘early adopter’ of every new gadget and has been talking through a satellite since he was in short pants. He was first to Bluetooth, first to podcast, first to solar-power everything. But then last month, out of the blue, he announced he had cancelled his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“Good heavens,” I said. “What’s happening here?”
This was the guy who assured me Twitter was going to be the most powerful new tool in politics and would change the world. He even wrote a book about how Facebook was going to hand power back to the consumer and bring the guys in the boardroom to heel. And now he was dismantling both platforms and turning his podcast studio into a playroom for his grandchildren.
“Facebook has become a place for bragging and complaining,” he explained. “Our mothers warned us about that.”
“And Twitter?” I asked. “The president of the United States now has 40 million followers. Isn’t that the kind of power you were talking about?”
“Twitter gives you the power to attack people and hurt them. It’s for blaming and shaming, two more things mother warned us about.”
It warmed my heart to hear an urban sophisticate confirm a belief I have quietly held for more than a decade. It turns out I was the early adopter after all, along with Kenny Jardine, the bachelor farmer across the road who shared my party line and kept me abreast of all breaking news in the neighbourhood. I wish I could claim that I took this high moral ground out of a firm sense of principle, but the fact is I live between two hills in Southern Ontario and a lot of this technology just wasn’t available to me. I couldn’t even get a fax machine until I gave up the party line. Until recently, I laboured with a wood-fired PC that my brother cobbled together out of a pile of spare parts. My son came home from the city one time and exclaimed, “Dad, you’re using Windows 95. You can’t even watch porn!”
Still, that computer and my wobbly connection to the Web has become absolutely indispensable to me. I use it every day for essential tasks like reminding myself which direction a ceiling fan is supposed to turn (clockwise in winter and counter-clockwise in summer). And if I am doing a carburetor kit on my chainsaw, there is always a helpful video from a scary-looking guy in Alabama who knows how many turns to give the idle control screw.
There are basically two audiences for all technologies. For example, there is Regular Twitter for gathering sports scores and updates on unusual weather. Then there is Stupid Twitter which is a platform for left and right wingnuts with nothing to do but express outrage and throw cabbages and dead cats at each other. Reading political Twitter feeds is like sitting in an unsupervised high school cafeteria listening to people shout insults at each other.
My kids used to call me WikiDaddia because my brain was like everybody else’s garage — crammed full of useless stuff. For years I could pull names and dates from history and give two-line summaries of plotlines from novels and operas. They found me so useful for school projects and university essays. But then they got their iPhones and started fact-checking me with Google. They don’t ask me much anymore.
Now I have my own iPhone, and I find myself reaching for it to take a picture of a strange bump on a sheep and forward it to my vet. Or I use my thumb to type a search for ‘spark plug gap for two-cylinder John Deere 40.’
I think the real explanation my friend gave up social media is that he just recently bought a farm and is now far too busy trying to fix things without breaking them to engage in idle chatter. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.