Stay in Touch Not by Phone

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A cartoon (originally from Shutterstock) of two older people getting a message on their phone.
Staying in touch with parents?

Dear Ms Smartphone: How to stay in touch outside of phones? My kids are in their thirties, mostly grown up and have good careers.  At least once a day one of them sends a group text from their smartphone with a picture or a joke. The pictures are typically of a great meal, pretty scenery, or funny pets. Sometimes there are jokes.  I enjoy the texts and our group exchange. It’s a nice way of dropping into their adult, daily lives. But, since they do not live very far, I suggest on numerous occasions that we get together and set up a regular family visit. There is extreme resistance and I am continually told that they have busy schedules.  For me, this smartphone communication is not enough. Mimi, Boston

Dear Mimi: Your question is really “Why has this smartphone become our primary means of interaction?” Families that live far apart or are stationed overseas have to depend on voice and, more recently, video calls to stay in touch. But, when we live closer together, why is the phone substituting for meeting in-person with each other?

To some extent this is a generational issue.  Many younger people feel that the technology- smartphones- are a means of staying in touch with each other. If they change jobs or move to a new community they can maintain a “persistent relationship” with the people they left behind. They may perceive that the “persistent relationship” also applies to their immediate family circle. 

Locked DOwn?

Although DearSmartphone, by definition,  puts devices at the center of relationships, it is necessary to ask, in an old-fashioned way, if your kids have other issues that keep them apart. I am not a therapist, but this one (link here) asks all the right questions about hidden resentments, hurt feelings, and neediness. If you follow the therapist’s advice, you will probably be having those difficult discussions….over your phone!

Keep in mind that smartphones with cameras and text are new- most families probably didn’t have them ten years ago- so it is hard to know how they change our personal lives and interpersonal dynamics. Much has been written about the risk for human communications: the lack of emotional, face-to-face conversations; the ability to be bored; the accelerating quest for new stimulation.  In face to face conversations, we have eye contact, we react to the tones of another person’s voice, and we sense their body movements. We lose that on our devices, even with Zoom or Facetime.

Perhaps using our phones to replace human interaction has happened faster than we ever thought……

Look Forward

Do your best to make a case for visiting with each other:  explain that you miss the spontaneous interactions, the sense of touch and smell, being able to share physical things (a book, a meal, a gift) or ask for their hands-on help with software. If your children were teens or pre-teens, you, as a good parent, would be actively regulating their digital lives and how much time they spent online. As the parent of adult children, it’s more difficult, but you have the advantage of having grown up with a time BC (before cell phones) and experiencing wholesome family-time across generations. Press on, for over an extended period, excluding real-life contact and non-verbal cues will harm your relationships even further.

Selfies for Good?

The Posted Video Kept Getting Shorter….but Funnier!!

This is a screenshot of words, translated from Italian to English by Google. The writer is saying a YouTube video of a tourist falling int he canal is a fake.
Is this fake news? A public comment posted on YouTube

Dear Ms. Smartphone: This week you posted on your Instagram a YouTube video on selfies that went viral in November (2019). It’s about a man with a selfie stick that falls in the water.  It was funny, but honestly, what is the difference between your own repost and say an edited short on Quibi TV? Russ, San Francisco.

Dear Russ:  Correct, I seldom post videos or watch Quibi because they require that I hand over my most precious resources: my time, my attention, and possibly, my privacy. But, the post you mention is more content on selfie-sticks and our isolated future. In 2014, the sales of self-sticks peaked and my prediction is that they will resurge, as we reach out to strangers less and less.

The video you mentioned shows an unidentified man in a Santa Hat obliviously stepping into a Venice, (Italy) canal during the “Alta Aqua,” or high water. He is looking at his phone screen, steps off the sidewalk, and plunges under. In this four second video, only the selfie stick and his phone remain above the water line.

EEK! Which Version Is THE Real?

I am happy to tell you that the plunge was not fatal and selfie-man emerged a micro-second later. But, and here’s the point, I know this because I found an earlier version of the video that was 17 seconds long. In a 26 second version of the video, the Santa hatted man pops right back up, and says a few words to a friend, seemingly the one filming him. This version is the first I can find online, it was posted about a week earlier, and it is from the UK Daily Mail.

The shorter version you saw, just four seconds long, also got posted on Facebook and it gets all the laughs. There was a lot of back discussion on Reddit of whether the whole video was staged (after all, someone is assiduously shooting selfie man) and in the public comments there is a small remark, in Italian, that the video is Chioggiotti stunt (see image). I also tried to contact the person who posted the shortened version of the video on Reddit, but no surprise, he did not message back. I want to know who edited the video…and why!

Fake News or Amateurs?

Maybe we only have attention spans of four second now, particularly on Instagram or TikTok. The problem is that the fuller story has been truncated and it’s easy for the naive viewer to reach the wrong conclusions. Why is this relevant? Fake news doesn’t have to originate in made-up events, it just has to be real events that lead us, often because of what is left unsaid, to misinterpretation or wrong conclusions. 

Seeing “Aqua Alta” from someone’s homemade video is, in many ways, as powerful as the news clip from a professional network TV crew (I personally like the news shots of suitcases floating like gondolas down the Grand Canal). But, when we are in the field as amateur journalists, we need to be there with a sense of responsibility. When we post: who is taking the picture, why are they telling the story, and is this the full story or one with edits?

We are all amateur journalists as the selfie-stick makes a rebound. I’m not putting down funny, I’m just saying that we also need to bake in reliability and trust as we edit and post our experiences in our brave new post Covid world.

Memes: Why So Popular?

What is it about Memes? Am I missing out?

A meme that won't bite. There is a picture of two wirefox terriers side by side. One has a horrible haircut and one is groomed. Is your dog groomer qualified?
A meme that won’t bite!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I don’t usually browse much online but during the quarantine, I was scrolling on Instagram and came across your site. There was a picture of a sign-board, and a meme you called the ‘me me.’ It seemed like a big joke, but not to me. My 12 year old preteen and her friends talk about memes all the time. Can you explain memes please and let me in on the joke! Lea, Belvedere

Dear Lea: Without sounding like a communications PhD, the word meme comes from Greek mimema, signifying something which is imaged. Memes have a tendency, like the times we live in, to go viral. Memes are pieces of cultural information that pass along from person to person, but gradually scale into a shared social phenomenon.

When people like you and me post on social media we are neither professional journalists nor story tellers. We need to create content that is simple, entertaining, and attention grabbing. And, the words and graphics need to be bite-sized, like our smartphones. Once we post, there are few social constraints: sometimes we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t care if the content is offensive or misinterpreted.

Inside Jokes?

During an earlier time of TV and newspapers, content was transmitted from ONE (the media corporation) to MANY (the public). The Internet flips that equation. There is a price for that: content is now fast, free and uncensored. Think of it like playing an old-fashioned game of ‘telephone’; the original message morphs over time and through different oral speakers, often in funny ways.

For most teens, memes are probably a safe way to share ‘inside’ jokes. They are old enough to separate meme- talk from real-talk. This is important because a lot of content does seem to me to condone aggression, bullying, taking drugs and alcohol, or being a smart-aleck.

What if we believe them?

I have two worries: one is that younger children who are not old enough to comprehend the subtlety will come to view the adult-world with cynicism and disrespect. Take, for example, the bizarro memes about Bert and Ernie. Today’s kids don’t watch Sesame Street so they just see puppet figures talking trash. On a broader level, I worry that the content treadmill will spiral even more outlandish, off-color memes in order to grab our increasingly jaded attention.

Like a virus that spreads without vaccines, there are limits to what you can do as a parent right now, except limit your kid’s exposure (i.e. time on the Internet). Perhaps ask your preteen to help you create a meme (disclaimer: this is not a recommendation for the site, just an example). Once your meme is posted, follow it with your daughter to see how often that message is remixed and shared. It may be one of the few things to enjoy that goes viral these days.