My 17-year old was bent over the patio table outside, with two friends, well after midnight. Nothing unusual in that – they joke around, they eat and drink. Mostly, they chat and listen to music, sometimes gathered around a laptop.
Last night I was curious. I wanted to know what they were doing, specifically. I peered out my window and squinted into the dark.
Video games I thought, or a movie. I was wrong on both counts.
I could see them by the flickering light of the citronella candles. And hear them. One of the teenagers appeared to be playing a mandolin. A second was on the harmonica. My son had his flute to his lips, something I haven’t seen in a year. The three were filling the night with music along with sound effects from the computer, and they were recording as they went.
I listened for awhile, both relieved and surprised. They were making something.
What did I make yesterday?
Yesterday morning I strung words together quickly, on a virtual page. Then I ran errands, visited sites and blogs in the afternoon, moved on to Twitter to send out links, and also to listen to happenings of interest.
I took care of the dog. I made dinner. I wrote some more, spoke on the phone, wrote awhile longer, after.
Is dinner the only tangible thing I made, and what was there to show for it after, except dirty dishes?
What do we build?
Eight plus years ago I helped design systems. I couldn’t hold them in my hands, but I felt like I was making something, part of creating a necessary service, in a service economy.
Twelve years ago we renovated our modest home, expanding it from two to three bedrooms, with a small den. I followed the construction with fascination. Even living in the midst of mess and workers and interruptions, I loved the process: the smell of plywood, the sound of rain on the tarp, even the jarring noise of nail guns as I worked from my home office. It all felt hopeful, somehow. Building is a commitment to the future.
Three years later my marriage was over and the house on the market, but the echo of satisfaction remained. It was a better house. Solid and well built. I had been part of that.
Relationships and virtual bridges
So what do you think?
- If I build a friendship in partnership with another through social media, does that count?
- If I build a “network” – a professional community – does that count?
- If I write, and I touch a life with a moment of amusement, recognition, or information, does that count?
Is this the value of social media? How does it compare to the printed word, the face-to-face encounter? Is it making something – or should we use another measure of contribution?
When I wrote for print, I was able to hold a newspaper in my hands and see the product of my contribution. I knew it was read over someone’s morning coffee, that it was clipped for someone’s scrapbook, that my words became part of “the permanent record.”
When I freelanced for a magazine, six months after turning in copy, I went to the bookstore, purchased the periodical, and held it in my hands, to feel the paper, smell the pages, see my words. I was part of making something.
What are we really building here? Are we all so much chatter, to fill time, and to ease our isolation?