Are social media here to stay or is that a dumb question for the NY Times to ask?

It’s surprising to me that the New York Times even asks the question in its Room for Debate column this morning, inviting six guest authors and the Twitter community to weigh in. Suggesting that Facebook’s “worrisome IPO” begs the question, the headline is a bit misleading as you’d be hard-pressed to find even a hint from the guest opinions that the phenomenon is a fad.

Most of the writers reiterate much of what we already know or have seen and read from countless other sources over the past few years. The positive:  New levels of interaction that transcend geographic isolation. A transfer of power from the few to the many. A voice for people previously excluded. An easy way to stay constantly connected. The benefits of instant answers. And the negative: concerns about privacy and who ultimately has access to all of our online content and at whose discretion. Our increased inability to focus as we jump from one intrusion to another. The long term ramifications for teenagers who create public online identities before they’ve developed their real identities.

Perhaps the Times feels compelled to cover a worn out topic because its readers are a year or two behind social media’s early adopters or the blogs that cover them. But is that possible when there are nearly a billion people on Facebook? Maybe it’s just that it’s hard to fill up an online newspaper when bits are endless and social media is still a hot enough topic to attract readers. Or better yet, the Times might just be practicing its own version of social media by giving others a voice, a say and a way to participate. There’s a hashtag #socialRFD if you want to join in.

I think the Times knows the answer. Of course social media are here to stay. Not because of the technologies or the platforms. Rather because Facebook and Twitter and Instagram allow us to resume the kinds of interactions that always defined human relationships until they were interrupted by the post industrial age when we moved to the suburbs, lost our sense of neighborhood and turned to TV for our solace. Thanks to all the new digital platforms on our iPads, phones and laptops, we can once again connect, albeit digitally, with people who share our interests, passions and concerns, maybe even meet and discover new virtual neighbors. (Granted, the fact that we tend to connect with people just like us, reinforcing existing beliefs and opinions is problem of which we should all be cognizant.)

The real question the Times should be asking is: “How else can we use social media to accomplish something good — make college education more affordable, increase cross-cultural understanding, invite new ways to serve our communities, or simply identify better topics for Room for Debate.”

The question isn’t whether or not social media are here to stay. It’s whether or not we continue to find really meaningful ways to leverage them.

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