The Digital Revolution

Some time last week, I posted a quick blurb about Clive Thompson's article "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy." I thought it was a great article showing how social networking and the internet are becoming an important asset to our social interactions, but still not taking the place of or normal relationships. I think the relationship between social networking sites and real human relationships is positive and beneficial.

Chris thinks differently:
Not that I think Thompson is on anybody's payroll, or that he's extolling the virtues of these social networking sites for undignified reasons. However, what is notably absent from the long New York Times piece is any mention of a downside. In fact, these new digital connectors can be so beneficial, apparently, that this one woman with an unreal amount of "Twitter friends" doesn't make many decisions without first opening up the question to her Twitter community.

I'm about to buy this car. Is it a good one?

I don't know what to eat tonight, Sushi or Pizza. What do you think?

I can't help but wonder that if she's camping and finds a fork in a trail, her head might just explode.

OK, if someone used their Twitter or Facebook to make every decision in their life, sure, there's a downside, but that's not the reality. I don't see anything wrong with consulting Twitter friends on buying a car. Maybe they know information about the car that you don't, or maybe they know a place that you can get a really good deal. This isn't relying on other people to make decisions for you, it's using the tools that you have to make the most informed decision possible. It's quick and easy to send this question to a large group of people and possibly glean important information. Why not?

Now Facebook is an entirely different story. Let's be honest, much of it is totally useless. Bumper Stickers and the late Scrabulous, though extremely fun, are inherently a waste of time. The Mini-Feed shoots up stories on your home page that you probably don't care about: "Brian changed his relationship status from 'In a relationship' to 'It's complicated." Oh no! All these facets of Facebook are just time wasters. I can accept that. But let's look at the positive social networking component of it.

There is a theory that humans can only keep a limited number of social interactions at one time called the Dunbar number. That number is estimated to be around 150. Now look at your Facebook. I'm sure you have a lot more friends than that. That's not saying that you've beaten Dunbar's number by having 600 Facebook friends, but you have kept connections via the internet that you probably wouldn't have kept otherwise. While these relationships are not as strong as the 150-ish real personal relationships you have, they are not totally lost forever and could foster stronger relationships in the future.

Here's an example: you're going to Memphis alone for a conference soon and don't really know what you're going to do there. You happen to be browsing around Facebook and see that one of your old high school buddies is going to school in Memphis. You send him a Facebook message and you meet up for drinks while you're there. Chances are this wouldn't happen in a Facebook-less world. You wouldn't have known that he was going to be there and you wouldn't have known how to get in contact with him.

Facebook doesn't move us away from real, personal relationships to strictly digital ones. It allows us to keep more personal relationships than we can normally. There are the few close friends that you'll call up every now and then to see how they're doing, but if you tried doing that to all of your buddies you'd be on the phone all day. Social networking sites allow you to keep up with your friends more easily.

We like this because it gives us this feeling of "ambient awareness," according to Thompson.
It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing.

Enter Twitter.

The day that the internet takes over all of our personal relationships will be a sad day indeed, but I don't think we're anywhere close to that. We're simply using the tools that we have available to us to supplement and improve our personal relationships.

Maybe I'll Twitter my buddies and see what they think...


Chris Monaghan said...

Your take is also devoid of admissions of any downsides. Except for a quick blurb about how a lot of information on facebook is superfluous, you largely ignore the negative aspects to these new technologies and shifts in social norms. Maybe you think the negatives are negligible, or even non-existent to the average rational internet user.

It reminds me of people who argued that cell phones were an incredible advancement. It lets you keep in contact with more people, you see. And when you go out and can't find someone, all it takes is a single phone call from your hip, and Voila. Without one, they argue, we would be much more disconnected than we are now.

But we managed just fine before cell phones. People would leave a message on our answering machine and we'd return the call later. If we weren't home, the person would shrug and move on. Now there's an urgency about it. "So and so's not answering their cell phone. What's wrong?"

And before Dunbar increasors like facebook we did okay, too. More of our "awareness" was made up of people who we wanted to focus on. Friends from high school sifted to the wayside for a reason. And when we were in memphis? Instead of looking up a mediocre dude we talk to every 3 years, maybe we strolled down to a coffee shop or a bar on our own and made some new friends.

These internet sites certainly aren't the bane of our existence, but they're not the boon of it either. They're simply different. A shift in how we view and maintain social relationships that aren't in our immediate sphere. It seems to me that it disconnects us as much as it congeals us together.

Chris Monaghan said...

Something that just came to me when I read over:

"More of our "awareness" was made up of people who we wanted to focus on."

Rethinking it, I think it's rational to suggest that much of our awareness was instead focused on ourselves. I think Thompson does a good job in proving that these new digital norms aren't replacing focus on others, especially those closest to you, but the time we spend on these programs and the energy we expend socially has to be replacing something. Whether it replaces us focusing on ourselves or simply reading the paper, who knows. I'm sure it depends on the person--what they truly would otherwise be doing and how much displacement they're actually engaged in.

But I think it is a reasonable concern to explore to wonder just how much less we focus on ourselves now that we have cell phones, twitter, facebook, blackberries, 24 cable news. How much are we internalizing. How much reflection do we forego? It's subtle because we don't necessarily feel it; indeed, our focus is elsewhere. To reflect on how much you don't reflect, you'd have to reflect quite a bit--which becomes a cyclical conundrum. But it would be interesting. Going camping for three days without a cell phone or internet, you might find you come back and you're already half way through the recovery of withdrawal. The fact that there's withdrawal at all suggests something unfortunate about these new paradigms.