My good friend and colleague Valasie August had this idea back in the summer to start a Jane Austen book club. To that end, she assembled 5 friends who said they were interested and suddenly 6 women who were all connected through Val became a book club. So we set out to read the novels in the order in which they were written and this Saturday was our discussion of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, probably the most well known of Austen’s works. What does this have to do with social media?
Social media is not a new invention (think letters and the telephone) only the technology we use is new. The meteoric rise in the adoption of social media platforms only reinforces what has been in our nature for centuries. I ask you to consider that Pride and Prejudice was first written when Jane Austen was 21 years old in 1797. It wasn’t published until 1813 after a major revision. The underlying story is the foundation of the recent movies Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice, not to mention many movie and television adaptations of the book itself. How is that for staying fresh and relevant across the ages?
Are the 21-year-olds on Facebook today substantively different than Jane Austen and her peers were at that age? Reading the book you wouldn’t think so. The fact that one of the fastest growing demographics of users on Facebook is women 55 to 65 also makes a lot of sense when you consider that women of all ages have a long history of thriving on all that is social. “Mommy Bloggers” have rated a designation all their own.
Most of us do not sit in one another’s parlors these days, host card parties, or attend local dances. But consider how much of what is shared on sites like Facebook are the very topics of discussion we would have if we did participate in these types of activities. So is it any wonder that these social media sites have tapped into this desire for conversation among 300 million people across every country on the planet?
What divides us in culture or language is somewhat eliminated by a website that gives us all a chance to join in the conversation in the parlor. Unlike the rigid class society of Austen’s era, our parlor is not exclusive but rather inclusive. In a presentation I heard recently by Sahil Sinha of INO Solutions, he put forth the idea that in many ways we are our most authentic selves online: issues of socio-economic status, religion, ethnicity, education, gender, age, language and even disability fall away in such online gathering places. Instead we are brought together by mutual interests and causes, mutual friends and acquaintances, by our offline communities, family, classmates and our “real life” occupations.
I can’t help but think Jane Austen would heartily approve of this. She was an intelligent thinking woman quite ahead of her time in many ways who enjoyed observing and writing about the conversations of others. Rather than consider what we do on Facebook as a waste of time, consider that this is the stuff that makes up our “real life.” Human beings – unlike other creatures on the planet – were given the gift of language both oral and written. I have to believe that Jane Austen would have encouraged us all to go out and use it well. The 48,826 fans of Jane Austen’s Facebook page very likely think so too!
What will each of us add to the collective conversation today? How important are conversations to you?