During my freshman year, I traveled to Alotenango, Guatemala for a service trip through the College of William and Mary. After studying Spanish in high school and given my dash of Mexican heritage, I felt decently confident in my Spanish-speaking abilities. Once I arrived, I was completely floored by how fast and easily Spanish came to all the Guatemalans with whom we interacted.
I found communication to be unexpectedly challenging. When speaking to my host family, I worried whether my accent was up to par. I wondered if my host sister snickered when I spoke up at the dinner table because of my kindergarten-level sentence construction.
I was reminded of these language frustrations when I joined Twitter in the spring. The use of new social media networks mirrors the experience of hopping off a plane in a foreign country.
I can still vividly recall the first few times I clicked the button “Tweet” and the questions that swirled around my brain. Am I clever enough to be posting here? Am I using this right? (Any of my followers who encountered my livetweets of Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Watch the Throne” concert would resoundingly answer, “No.”)
Other paranoid and self-conscious questions plagued me. When will someone respond to me? Am I the butt of the joke for everybody who already knows how to use it?
Certain core concepts remain largely the same for both language and social media. Both have distinct learning curves. Each new social media platform has its own unique vocabulary and word usages that would make Merriam and Webster roll over in their graves. Most importantly, we use both language and our social media platforms to connect with others.
I think that explains the common outrage whenever Mark Zuckerberg and company tinker with Facebook. It is enfeebling to suddenly feel lost when you attempt to use a medium previously both intuitive and intrinsic to the way you connect with people. It’s akin to opening your mouth and finding you must relearn how to speak basic words and sentences.
Despite the fact that the “old” Facebook, whose loss we collectively mourn, was the product of other changes that we previously protested, the frustration of having to relearn something we thought we had mastered is enough to overpower any appreciation of the fact that we know the change was made for our benefit.
By the end of my stay in Guatemala, I had practiced enough to speak confidently. The key to that earned confidence was a willingness to engage and embarrass myself. While advanced language courses may train people to speak with confidence, the only social media course is raw trial and error.