Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand…
Bob Dylan's lyrics marked a dramatic generational shift and they ring true again with the newest digital divide: social media.
Dylan's generation swapped information at cafés and protests, and spread their messages through pamphlets and the underground press. Today, we have Facebook and Twitter to exchange ideas, and blogs to build grassroots movements.
As easy as it is to network from the comfort of one's home, only 5 percent of Americans use Twitter, according to a recent Harris poll. Less than half of adults have either a MySpace or Facebook page, with just 16 percent updating their page daily.
Some say they just don't "get it." Why would I care that hottie1955 is eating Cheerios for dinner? Where am I going to find the time to Twitter all these twits? How is it social to spend your day hunched over a computer?
Since Wah-Wah-Wah.com isn't working, I'll tackle these questions before addressing why social media technology is the best thing that has happened to the Internet since the search engine, and may be even more important.
Complaint #1: Why would I give a hoot about people's menial, mundane tasks?
Choose who you follow and friend carefully. Drop people, or just block updates from them if they don't fit with why you're using social media. But give people a chance before getting too trigger-happy.
These technologies are in their infancy; people are figuring them out and need to be educated. Consider starting a conversation asking if people are annoyed when others comment on what they ate. Sure, you may upset some people, but if they're offended, they can de-friend you.
My Facebook use has been focused on who I knew in the past, but I'm now focused on who I want to know in the future. You need to actively seek out people whose thoughts interest you to raise the level of your social media experience.
Complaint #2: I don't have time for social networking.
These sites can be a time drain, but once you learn how to use them, they can save you time and money, and help foster valuable connections.
For instance, my wife recently was craving pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). I went to Yelp.com and found a list of restaurants, each with customer reviews. The social review site allowed us to read the reviewers' biographies, e-mail them questions, see how many people agreed with the reviewers and even rate the reviewers' reviews.
Not only was it quicker than the Yellow Pages, it provided more information. In addition, the site holds restaurants accountable to each customer, and even holds the reviewers accountable.
Yelp does more than help find good grub. Doctors, lawyers and even politicians can be rated.
Complaint #3: How is spending more time in front of my computer being social?
I generally prefer talking to people in person, but time is limited and schedules are difficult to organize. What's more important is having those online conversations, many of which you just don't get in a typical social setting. Also, many social networking tools lead to in-person meet-ups. There is even a word for twitter meetings: tweet-ups.
Also, there's more to social networking than being social. There's the professional networking part of it. Commenting on a mentor's blog post can open a door to a discussion and lead to friendship or a working relationship.
There are other gripes and excuses I could write about, but here's what makes social media so important to the functionality of the Internet: We have never had so much information at our fingertips. There is no way to dig through it all on our own, even with a search engine. Social media tools harness the power of people sifting through information to bring out the best.
Social bookmarking sites like Digg and StumbleUpon are great examples. People select articles worthy of reading by voting for them. The higher the stories rank, the more likely they will be read. StumbleUpon learns what you like as you vote, and can take you to sites based on your interests. Like Yelp, the reviewers nominating stories have reviewed profiles. You can read their other recommendations, and if you find someone to your liking, you can friend them and send them messages.
On social networking sites like Facebook, friends recommend articles. This means the articles have been vetted, and are probably worth reading.
The more people who participate, the more filters and reviewers there will be and, ideally, the higher quality information will float to the top. With the best information, and the coming together of like-minded people, there will be collaboration and action.
I am hopeful and a little envious of the generation that is growing up with this technology. With better information, people will be able to hold corporations, politicians and other professionals accountable.
Some examples of powerful uses of social media include the election of our president, who deftly raised money and fought smear campaigns with social media tools. He now addresses the public on YouTube, where they can comment on and discuss his speeches.
Freedomspeaks.com is a nonpartisan political social network that allows its members to write letters to their publicly elected officials. You can go through issues, interact with members and elected officials, read their letters and add them as friends or foes.
Spot.Us is a nonprofit project aimed at creating "community-funded reporting." Through Spot.Us, a journalist pitches a story directly to the public. The stories that garner enough donations are researched and written. In some cases, you can join a reporting team if you're interested in working on the story.
Indeed, the times they are a-changin'.
Seth Liss is the Sun Sentinel's deputy online editor. He can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter at @sliss33 or by phone at 954-356-4207.