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!
It’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.