Archive for December, 2009

Does social media redefine neighborly interaction?

December 14, 2009
It's a jungle out there.

It's a jungle out there.

I like social media.  Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.  I think it’s a valuable tool for communication, and can even be a source of entertainment.  It’s definitely increased the flow of information between people.  But I don’t think that social media is radically changing the way that people communicate.

As Ivor Tossell points out in his audio piece in this article from Canada’s Globe and Mail, there seems to be an equally ridiculous prevalence of people on both sides of the social media spectrum:  a) the so-called Social Media Experts who are regular people who just really, really like playing on Facebook and Twitter, and b) the Get-off-my-lawn brigade, whose “underlying philosophy is that social networking websites…are one big frivolity and anti-social distraction.”

The dichotomy between the reality of the situation and the drivel that both of these camps spout off brings to mind this GraphJam.com chart about political coverage on television:

US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given
US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given

And just like the never-ending political debate, rational thought is really somewhere in between.

Here’s where I get defensive about social networking.  Because online networking is done in front of a computer, there are those who equate the decline of western civilization to the abundance and prevalence of online friendships.  The hypocritical people who decry social networking practices as information overload or invasive of privacy are often the same ones who shake their heads and grumble about how it’s a shame that people don’t know their neighbors anymore.  How is communicating with an acquaintance on Facebook that different?  As Tossell notes, the get-off-my-lawn camp “…operate[s] on the presumption that online friendships are fraudulent or somehow debased, as opposed to the kind that are maintained over telephones, or nurtured in stoic silence, or maybe those extra-special friendships that are maintained by sending stacks of Christmas letters once a year.”  For the vast majority of us, our online networks are filled with real people who we know and care about at least on some level.  Of course, there are the few people with 10,371 Myspace friends that raise a red flag to the get-off-my-lawn folks.  But really, they’re no different than the guy from the early 80’s with the massive black book of phone numbers:  nobody is taking either of them seriously.

The most common complaint I hear about why Twitter (or any status update) is trivial goes something like “I don’t care that my college buddy in Omaha is making a sandwich.”  (Yet millions of Americans tune in each week and get emotionally tied to the contestants – most of whom the average viewer does not know personally – on American Idol or any other reality show.) Even the most independent of us – I’m definitely included in this camp – still naturally crave a certain level of human interaction.  The behavioral information you pick up about a person – whether through status updates on Facebook or through picking up her subtle body language out of the corner of your eye – pretty much tells you the same thing.  Social scientists refer to it as “ambient awareness,” as defined in Clive Thompson’s New York Times Magazine piece “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” So maybe deep down, on a subconscious level…you do care about your buddy’s sandwich.

So what’s my point in all this?  It’s that there is a point to all of this.  Social networking isn’t radically changing the way that human beings communicate and behave.  It’s simply opening another avenue to allow real people to do what they’re going to do anyway:  group together in little bunches, make friends, socialize, and share their lives with each other.  We’re just doing it a little faster now.