Before the end of the year, I said, “Social networking is the fog we use to confuse our relationships and obscure our antisocial habits. Thoughts?” That was the entire post, so only click the link if you like the idea of my hit count increasing. I didn’t get much response. What I got was incredibly thoughtful. I just wish I had gotten more.
I’m not opposed to the existence of social networking. I was an early adopter of Facebook when it hit the University of Michigan. This had to be between my sophomore and junior years, if memory serves. Someone in the University of Michigan community on LiveJournal, a proto-social network itself, announced that The Facebook had finally hit Michigan and we could all sign up. Curiosity led to my account on the network, no matter how creepy it was at the time. Some may find the timeline feature disturbing, but there was a time when the site urged its users to post their class scheduled and share them – and there were no privacy controls.
But social networks are not in and of themselves problematic. They are essentially programs. They supply none of their own information, and they only occasionally pull information about you from other locations. Social networks are ultimately at the mercy of their users.
In the technological age, I would argue that we are more asocial now than were previous generations. (I mistyped in the earlier quote when I used “antisocial”, as that denotes psychopathy.) There is so much information with which we are being inundated that we have little choice but to be sedentary. We have more television shows, movies, and video games than ever before, and we have much greater access to them. Not to mention books, magazines, and music have not gone anywhere, despite fears. We have greater supply and access to them, too. It’s difficult to be up-to-date on any information floating about and be as social as previous generations that had no choice.
This is the draw of social networking. We are already attached to our computers and phones, so why not connect to a large number of people without having to make any additional effort to do so? Within minutes we can read up on a person’s history, at least as much as they’ve shared, and provide a comment to show that we empathize or support them. Whether the comment is more for them or for ourselves is never questioned. It’s there. We are connected and social. And it can be done within minutes of waking up, without having to dress or bathe.
Digital relationships are incredibly easy to maintain, especially on a social networking site. Immediacy is all that is usually necessary in such a relationship. “i had a bad day,” on person can say, if not something more vague like, “ugggh dammiit!” An overachiever in social relationships can ask, “ohno what happned?”, but many more will likely say, “sorry, hope things get better!” If greater empathy is sought, then a user just needs to make use of history. Look through past posts on the person’s profile and say, “man, i hope dave isnt still a problem”. (Yeah, the punctuation is outside the quote for a reason.) We can feel better about ourselves for showing so much concern, and our relationship is strengthened.
But is it?
Social networking allows for so many more false positives in our relationships. If we are putting minimal effort into our interactions, then are we really friends? There’s a reason why “Facebook friend” is the more useful adjective, but is that lower tier enough? It amazes me that people who cannot stand each other will communicate politely on social networks. It is disingenuous, and it would make so much more sense to me if they were not publicly “friends” online.
Which leads me to my additional concern about maintaining the genuineness of real relationships while using social networks. Even with privacy controls employed to curtail the spread of information, there’s a loss of intimacy whenever something between people is shared online. Direct messages are intimate (but not as much as a phone call and not as much as in-person), but posts to someone’s wall are not. Having a “great night out” is an intimate experience that loses magic whenever posted for the world to see. Ultrasounds? You should ask people before you show off the inside of your uterus. Plus, that’s an amazing thing that should only be shared with the select few. But when it’s in everyone’s face, what meaning does it have anymore?
The root cause of these behaviors comes down to some form of insecurity. From the people who boast because they wish to feel more empowered to the heavy users who desperately want to feel less alone, social networking sites are a playground for the insecure. Social networking sites function as a smokescreen that helps convince (sometimes successfully) the public and the individual that there is nothing wrong with the individual. We are connected; we are all friends with each other. There’s nothing wrong at all.
It may seem like I’m harping the most on Facebook, but I fail to see how these problems aren’t applicable to other networks. Twitter is full of individuals who over share information to feel connected, mostly because the push behind Twitter is the immediacy. Google+ is still in a nascent stage, but there are individuals who came to the network with the exact same mentality but a new audience. None of these networks are any better than the others in this regard.
I’m also still a social network user. I have an increasingly more private Facebook profile that I check once a week, and I have just launched a G+ page for the blog. Observant readers might have noticed the (poorly placed) link in the profile at the bottom of every post. I may have my issues with social networking, but I also understand their benefits.