How Social is Social Networking?

You’d be hard pressed these days to turn on a news show or peruse a company’s website without seeing some reference to Twitter or Facebook. If, God forbid, you get sucked into some discussion of the latest marketing trends, you simply can’t avoid fervid, hopeful discussions of social networking. The national shouting match called Twitter or the silly cocktail party known as Facebook are just the tip of the iceberg. Social networking thy name is legion and the sheer volume of content, focus, and, well, volume we’re currently investing here is mind boggling.

Our now decades long rush to the information age is beginning to acquire some of the ballast known as history. Folks aren’t so naïve anymore as to gush that this changes everything, that social networking makes the old ways irrelevant at best and obstructionist of some vaguely defined digital Nirvana at worst. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t acting like it. Our utopian digital hopes may be too wounded to speak them aloud, but our unconscious keeps its own kind of rapidly revolving historical record barely distinguishable from immediate gratification. Even as we project ourselves into the digital world, that projection is as much unconscious as it is deliberate. And social networking feels good, really good. Personally and professionally.

The Good and the. . .
Linkedin helped me secure my current job. It’s a good job with good folks. I’m glad I have it and not just for the paycheck. I’ve been blogging regularly for over a year now. A writing project called A Year In Haiku, a collective giving project tied to a milestone birthday, a novel, Survival in a Minor Key, in serial form, and, of course, this. The response has been a little hit or miss, but none of them have gone completely unacknowledged. All have started conversations that I would otherwise not have had, both in person and through the ‘net. In the last year, through Facebook, I’ve reconnected with many friends that I’d lost touch with due to my Gypsy blood and the limits of physical distance. A few of those reconnections have recovered something profoundly satisfying, a rediscovery of people who get me and see parts of what I consider to be my authentic self. Social networking feels good, really good.

So why did one of my friends throw out the question at the digital cocktail party, “When will we understand this [Facebook] as damage?” I’m not sure what answer he was thinking of, either in terms of timeline of recognition or the definition of the damage, but I recognize a good question when I see one. The benefits of social networking are pretty obvious. So were the benefits of rural electrification, the interstate system, and a plethora of consumer package goods. However, we’re coming to understand those benefits came with, among other things, a carbon tax that we might not want to pay long term

So what’s the new social networking tax? As we go from an analog social networking in restaurants and bars, conferences and training sessions, churches and coffee houses, to digital social networking on Facebook and blogs, e-mail and shared calendars, video conferencing and conference calls, what’s the tax? What’s the cost? What has to be sacrificed (and I’m not talking the ritual kind involving goats that my international video conference bridge seems to require)?

What Comes Between You and Me
The switch from presence to representation, Analog to Digital has some obvious pre-requisites. There’s some kind of machine based intermediation. Even in high def, touching the image of a lover’s cheek on the screen is not quite the same thing as being there. The digital world is rapidly and vastly improving its representations, but there are still limits. Representation is representation and presence is presence.

I’m not getting all gushy about catching the scent of a well brewed coffee as a backdrop to a casual conversation or even tapping into all the science about how touch or taste or scent can have a profound physiological effect on our well being. Yeah, all of that gets stripped away with digital intermediation in the newest variation on the oldest of human activities (not that! I was thinking of social networking). There’s something more basic, less about our more refined senses and intelligence, and more about our lives as physical beings in an actual, analog world.

Much as we might wish it, the laws of physics, the march of time, the realities of place are not susceptible to the whims of our conscious and subconscious selves. When we are networking in person, we have no choice but to adapt ourselves to the realities of our proximate situation, the realities of who we are, the people we’re with, and our present locality. That adaptation, being good at the collaborative creation of immediate reality, is the foundation of any relationship, is a critical element of initial connection and sustained meaning in our lives.

What Comes Between Me and Me
The digital world places us under no such constraints. Don’t like your history? Edit it, don’t share it. Tired of that once funny, now not so glamorous picture? Delete it. Don’t like your gender? On the internet, nobody knows your representation is trans-gendered. Need to find a different group of friends? Fan some person or event or something or other on Facebook and you’ve got thousands of instant new friends.

In full disclosure mode, I have to confess I’ve done all of the above. I’m on Facebook three times. Once as myself, once as guy who’s single and 20 years younger than I am, and once as a woman about my age, but much better looking and much more successful. What started out as a gaming driven divertissement, has become an element of my understanding of the world and of my self in it. Hey guys, did you know that women see a completely different internet than you do? The pop up ads, the spam, recommended apps and friends – all significantly different. I never saw a pop up ad for a vacuum cleaner until I logged on as a female. Instead of big boobs and promises of sex, I got sparkling eyes and promises of romance. Tell the truth boys, have you ever been offered help on-line with the problem of “intimate odor”?

For better or worse, digital social networks are much more malleable than the analog kind, both in how we present ourselves and in how our represented selves are interpreted and manipulated by others. As a representation, especially a representation we create, it has no bottom line that forces us to confront the multiple, shifting realities of our individual day-to-day worlds. Perhaps the predictions of “damage” are a bit of hyperbole, but certainly we need to be sensitive to the likelihood of lost capabilities. I come back to a possibly apocryphal story at the beginning of Neil Postman’s Technolopy. He writes of a tribal leader confronted with writing for the first time. Rather than seeing this as a wonder, he muses that this will cost his people their culture as they forget how to talk, to sing, and to experience their own history in un-intermediated memory.

We humans certainly shape our tools, but can there be any doubt that our tools shape us back, drawing us to new possibilities and distracting us away from others? Social networking isn’t new, but we’ve got some new tools that we use to pursue it these days. Those tools force us to walk the Analog/Digital divide, to follow those new possibilities (and possible illusions) to the exclusion of others. If we’re paying attention, if we have our eyes at least part-wise open, we’ll watch how those new tools shape the fidelity of the on-going translation from recent history to immediate future.

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