The “Please, Someone Notice Me!” Generation—More Thoughts


The comments on my previous post were so good that I decided to air a few more thoughts on the phenomenon of social networking Web sites and widgets. If you missed the previous post that featured my take on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, AIM, and their ilk, plus the more pressing issue they magnify, that of a desperate need for people today to be noticed, then you can read it here.

I found it strange that most people glossed over the greater statement in that post that ours is a voyeuristic/celebrity generation intent on, if not its 15 minutes of fame, avoiding anonymity on a larger scale. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few months ago that explained the sudden rise in unusual names for children. Parents, not wishing their li’l darlings to suffer the damning fate of being invisible to search engines, are eschewing the common names of the past for ones easily Googled. Pity poor John Joseph Smith! All hail Aloysius Percival Smith!

Hollow on the insideIt’s a strange disconnect with the past and a harbinger of a global future. Our ancestors’ greatest aspirations lay in being a known entity in the local community. Competition for attention typically did not extend more than a dozen miles in any direction. Today, though, Thomas Friedman’s flattening necessitates, in some people’s minds, a sphere of influence no smaller than a continent, and, more optimally, the entirety of planet Earth. It’s not enough to be the town mayor. Unless one shoots for Emperor of the Universe, others might deem one’s aspirations a bit too meager.

So we’re thrust into this bizarre world of everyone scrambling for attention. The oddest part of the odyssey we’ve taken toward essential global recognition through our friend-laden Facebook page or Twitter-a-minute updates is that it began long before the Web took off.

I remember back to the Stone Age of 1992 when I was a senior in college. We had a special assembly that was supposed to promote diversity on campus.  One ethnic group of students after another would come on stage and tell why their group was worthy of attention and celebration. Afterwards, I ran into one of my friends on campus, also an older student, who happened to be of African ancestry. We both expressed the awful feeling we had on leaving the assembly. He said, “It’s as if each group got up there and yelled, ‘Don’t look at them! Look at us instead!.'” And you know, he nailed that observation. It was the first time in my life that I realized that everyone is dying to be center stage, even if it means trampling someone else to get there.

Internet-based social networking takes this to another level. Since there must be winners and losers in the push to be noticed, people have to stay current and hot. It’s now not enough that an actor must keep his or her face out there, even if it means slumming in C-Movie Land, your average Jane is compelled to keep her MySpace page up-to-the-minute or else face obscurity, buried under a hundred million other pages that are hipper and more relevant. To this generation, nothing could be more damning than to find no one cares that you think Timbaland is teh hot because they’ve moved on to someone else’s minty-fresh page.

Some may be laughing about this, but for too many people it’s a serious thing. The hit counter decelerates and depression sets in. The Internet, in many ways, amplifies the feeling that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you might be a 2-pound Yorkie-poo.

For others, it may be the opposite problem. A little attention and up sprouts the deceptive kingdom of “I Am Somebody!” Suddenly, your Barbie Fashions Designed By Bobby Mackie page has a thousand subscribers who consider you the guru of Barbie fashions designed by Bobby Mackie. (Until they find someone else filled with more Barbie-fashions-designed-by-Bobby-Mackie goodness. See above.)

Whether on the way up to Internet fame or spiraling down into irrelevance, people have to get in on the game. To not play means an anonymous fate worse than death.

But what of the face-to-face encounter?

If my senior year in college was the Stone Age, then my sophomore year must’ve have been the Cambrian Era, when giant trilobites roamed vast continent-spanning oceans in search of some place to drop a quarter on Centipede, Qix, or Dig Dug. (Yeah, I managed to wedge in a decade between my sophomore and senior year.)

For the rehash of my point, I’ll dig into the guts from a past post (“Has the Christian Blogosphere Lost Its Collective Mind“):

When I was at Carnegie Mellon University studying artificial intelligence and robotics in the early 1980s, CMU was on the cutting edge of the pre-Internet world. Every dorm had networked computers, IBM was opening up a networking research center on campus, and there was so much stinking CPU horsepower at the school that they ran their HVAC systems through the mainframe cooling systems to heat the academic buildings. In short, only MIT was even close in computing power.

One of the cool things about the school was that it was on ARPANET. I could e-mail a friend at MIT. Back then that was something. We also had a college online community that existed only in cyberspace. We talked about every subject imaginable. Everyone had cool handles, so it was easy to hide behind our anonymity and be “free.”

I liked to hang out in an area discussing Christianity. Needless to say, it got contentious considering that the (self-identified) “heathen” to Christian ratio was about 500:1. One day a heathen posted something really sick, and the worst flame war I’ve ever seen in my life erupted. I tried with all my might to keep it civil, but things got out of control. I’ve never seen such hateful things said in my life from people with handles like Blasphemer, Bot, Mr. Wizard, and Grue.

Yet behind each of those handles was a person—someone I could be sitting next to in class and not even know it. So I proposed something radical: I asked that the most vocal people—about forty altogether—meet up at a local Italian restaurant for dinner. We could talk face-to-face, drop the anonymity, and be real people. Maybe then we could come to a better understanding. Everyone in the flame war agreed, all forty.

I reserved a room at the Italian place, set up carpools with the forty, arranged a rendezvous on campus so we could drive down in the carpools, and had the whole thing worked out. I was really looking forward to it.

The day comes, and my watch shows 4:30 PM. I’m in the meeting spot for the carpools and no one shows. Around 4:40, my laid-back, barefoot Christian buddy, Tom (aka “Captain Zodiac”), arrives and says, “Hey, where is everybody?” Tom and I sat there until 5:15 before we finally called the restaurant, canceled, and went upstairs to grab a burger in the lounge cafeteria.

Two days later, most everyone was at it again on the BBS system, flaming away. When I asked where everyone had been, there was a vast silence. I never got a response. As for me, I gradually bowed out of the “conversation” having learned a great lesson about human nature.

Nothing we do replaces the face-to-face. God wrapped so much of who we are in these flesh-and-bone bodies. He gave us intonations, facial expressions, and all other manner of communication that is lost through the Internet. Most of all, He gave us a soul. And no matter how eloquent we might be online, we can’t communicate that soul through our high-tech gadgets.

That distance so readily on display in the flame war above only illustrates the ultimate Achilles heel we build into every techno-whizbang toy we consider so vital to our personae. Yet how easily we lose ourselves in the the distant world of iPods, tweets, and Facebook pages.

This is not to say that high-tech social networking tools have no value, only that their value may be far more limited than we understand. The devil in this is that none of us is ubiquitous and neither is our time. Something MUST give. If the sociologists are to be believed, perhaps the give is our surrendering of the face-to-face for the security of a Twitter tweet.

One last illustration culled from a previous post (one that also looks at fractured community, “Radical Thoughts, Real Community“):

I remember many years ago how my old neighborhood experienced a power outage that blackened TVs, silenced video games (Atari 2600s back then), and quieted the bits and bytes of computers (Commodore 64 and Apple IIe). Right after supper, with the electronics stilled, the soft voice of that beautiful summer night called to people. The next thing I knew neighbors were chatting in each other’s yards, kids were playing impromptu games of Kick the Can and softball, and the neighborhood came alive. But when the power kicked on an hour or so later, the neighborhood took on the feel of a tomb. People had trudged back to their electronic distractions, each homeowner shutting the door on his or her personal fortress.

We’re still locked up today. Perhaps more so.

Bowling alone, anyone? On the Wii?

I don’t believe we have to live this way. I don’t believe the disconnected humanity depicted in Pixar’s Wall-E must be our future.

A couple readers asked for my take on solutions. As I’ve written on the subject of community extensively, I suggest selecting that blog category in the sidebar or clicking on this link and this one.

As for the irony of me discussing this through a blog, well, you’re right. Still, this is more about trying to make a difference than it is about getting someone to notice yours truly. And yes, if no one noticed, then nothing in this blog would make a difference. It’s not a perfect medium. God help me if it substitutes for my time in flesh-and-blood, face-to-face connection. May that never be the case.

Thanks for reading. The comments, as always, are open.

11 thoughts on “The “Please, Someone Notice Me!” Generation—More Thoughts

  1. David

    Sociopath: Someone whose social behavior is extremely abnormal. Sociopaths are interested only in their personal needs and desires, without concern for the effects of their behavior on others.

    So says the Houghton-Mifflin Science Dictionary. Doesn’t this define society at large? We have become an anti-social society. Watch just about any sitcom, drama, or movie on TV, and sociopathic behavior among the main characters is often the defining characteristic. This is hardly new. Read Judges and see what happens when

    “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

    But I will reiterate what I said yesterday: It is not our technology that has made us this way, but a purposeful choice by people using the technology. ARPANET made your CMU flamewar possible, but people made it happen. Christians, as the sole agents of positive change, need to pay attention to how we live, whether with or without technology.

    • David,

      I think the jury is still out on the sociopathic thing as a whole, but I do agree that West is moving in that direction.

      I disagree to a point on neutrality of tech. Tech items create their own exclusions that sometimes cannot be avoided. Take cell phones. If you don’t want one, it’s far harder to operate. The rise of them has meant that it’s very hard to find a pay phone anymore. That means that your preferred mode of dealing with emergency situations has been eliminated by the very technology you elected not to pursue. Good luck.

      So it is with other things. If you don’t have a Facebook page and employers are perusing Facebook for future employees, it will be harder for you to find work. In the same way, if someone calls you a complete idiot and homophobe on his Facebook page, some employer might see that—and regardless of the statement’s veracity—elect not to hire you for a job because you are perceived as a possible idiot and homophobe.

      This stuff is all very dicey. And while some say, “Yeah, bring it on,” it always exacts a cost. Typically, very few people have examined that cost until the groundswell is so huge that the inevitability of the new tech can no longer be avoided.

      This is one reason we are getting very little truth about the dangers of cell phone use. Every study on the dangers gets buried because the lawsuits that would come might even destroy entire economies. So everyone lives in denial.

      I do not believe that tech is neutral. Christians drove the industrial revolution as part of postmillennial triumphalism, yet now we beef about the social havoc we live with, most of it derived from our headlong rush to embrace industrialism without considering the cost. We have done the same with our tech toys today.

      They have an old saying, though: “If you lie down with dogs, you get their fleas.”

      • David

        Again, though, it’s not the tech itself, but how it is used or abused. While the choices are sometimes made for us, only humans make choices.

        But it leads to an interesting thought: How long until the choices made for us lead to do-or-die decisions on the part of Christians? At what point on this slippery slope do we cast aside our souls in our grab for the iPhone?

        Whatever our view of industrialism, it was rooted in the desire for things of this world, not the one to come. The same can be said of our embrace of technology.

  2. Adam

    “As for the irony of me discussing this through a blog, well, you’re right. Still, this is more about trying to make a difference than it is about getting someone to notice yours truly.”

    If someone makes a big enough difference, aren’t they noticed? You’re coming across like being noticed is a bad thing. And I think we need to make the point that not everyone who uses social networking tools fits into your arguement. My pastor is noticed every week when he stands on the stage and delivers his sermon, he is noticed but not in a bad way. There are attention seekers and people who get attention. You have some very good points, but the fact is these social tools are here to stay and can be used for great and wonderful things like your blog for instance. It’s a means to spread your message. I’m a new reader to your blog so I don’t know if you have ever done this, but try a month away from all things tech and see how it goes. I spent a month away from my computer and it was awesome, but the reality is I have work to do and people who I want to stay connected to even if it’s just through email or twitter.


      • Adam

        True, but you don’t have to “accept it” or “join them”, it’s also a choice argument. The point is no matter how much we discuss this, it isn’t going to change the fact that these social outlets are available and people are going to use them. I want to be clear Dan, I’m in agreement with you as far as human to human interaction should take priority over all other forms of communication,but that isn’t always possible and it doesn’t mean that these alternative forms of communitcation (Twitter, email, text, etc.) don’t have a place in our 21st century society. You yourself said you can understand the business and marketing aspects of using such online tools. They have a place, no they shouldn’t be priority, but they have a place and can be useful.


  3. David’s comment gets at what I was trying to say. If the desire to get noticed is a problem (and it can be if it becomes unhealthy) then it’s a problem that has existed for the extent of human history. It is simply easier now to get noticed. If you have something to share with the universe, as you do Dan, then you put it out on the net. There are other ways to expand that circle and receive more notice, if not for you then for your content. You seem to be kicking more about the method of content delivery than anything else.

    Now granted, in this post you seem to have narrowed to focus to the root problem, but again you seem to be pining for the good old days when we stood around on the corner chatting with our neighbors. I submit to you that if people still want that then that still happens. Those people that don’t want it wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have all the whiz bangery. Or they may stand out on the corner but share little of consequence.

    Human nature hasn’t changed in 10,000 years or if it has then no one had told me. The flamers would still harbor those thoughts in their heart if ARPANET had never been invented. Flamewars are a symptom of a heart issue. It’s not the flame war that’s the sin, it’s what’s in the flamer’s heart. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak. Isn’t that how that goes?

    • Scott,

      I guess I question the value of HAVING to do anything. There’s a compulsion there that should sober us. Companies are now hiring people through Second Life. It may be that one day that is the only way they will hire people. That necessitates that you have Second Life account. But what if you don’t WANT a Second Life account?

      Flamewars are enabled by tech. In the past, people were forced to keep their opinions to themselves or have to voice them in public face-to-face with their foes. But tech has enabled an unhealthy anonymity (along with an unhealthy publicity) that never existed before. It is indeed a new thing. It allows people to bypass the societal restraints that God designed that enable us to live as a healthy society.

      • Adam

        I would have to agree with this comment. Tech does allow one to voice their opinions anonymously instead of what the Bible tells us, which is if you have a problem with someone you are to go to that person and work it out(paraphrased). Face to face. Online bullying is an ever growing problem. This is a con of social networking sites.


  4. Don Fields

    “Nothing we do replaces the face-to-face.”

    Yep. But we all want to argue that technology has helped us communicate when we WON’T talk face-to-face. We CHOOSE NOT to have personal contact and then use our technological communication to assuage our conscience. Take away all the technology and what would we have left? Hardly any community and very little real, in-depth communication. Technology has helped us to have MORE SHALLOW communication and more surface relationships and LESS REAL communication and in-depth relationships.

    I’m not blaming technology. But I am saying that our hunger for such technology and glee at having it available demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem.

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