Sunday, December 21, 2008

Social Networking Pros & Cons

Question: Is online social networking socially enhancing or socially isolating?

The Economist Debate on Social Networking in Education

Horizon Project: Social Networking
Connecting Safely - Social Networking Dangers in Perspective
The Dangers of Social Networking
Washington Post: Social Isolation Is Growing in the U.S.


Dave said...

I just started feeling old a couple years ago, when things like MySpace come to fruition. I still don’t totally understand them.

Maybe its me, but my social network in real life is rather small. Small, but meaningful. Lots of my friends are people I’ve known a long time. It seems like some of the social networking sights become a contest – whoever gets the most friends win?

A few weeks ago, I reluctantly joined Facebook in order to keep tabs on my nieces and nephews. It appears that they use this more than e-mail, which is my preferred communication medium. Using Facebook allows me to communicate with them individually, or in-mass. In private, or in public. I get to see pictures. Hear about events. So far, so good. I’ve got 6 friends. Plenty.

But it also allows some interesting things to happen. For example, I got re-united with a former classmate who I hadn’t communicated with for nearly thirty years. She’s now living in Florida, happily married, and so on. It was a pleasant surprise. So maybe there is some merit to these sites that I hadn’t initially seen. It got me to thinking.

In my pre-internet life, I saw an interesting cycle. Graduate from high school. Stay in touch with a few people for a few years, but gradually lose touch. Graduate from College. Stay in touch with these people for a few years, but gradually lose touch, except for a few. Start my career, meet some new people. Move to a new town, meet some new people. And so on. When I think about it, it’s a lot of so-called, “social capital” that was lost. Relationships that had been built. Good times enjoyed together. Bad times we perserved through. Poof, except for some pictures, a moment in time lost. With the on-line social networks now, those times can be permanently archived, and contacts kept in place. One huge, self-maintained directly. Somebody moves? They update their Facebook page and everyone knows what is happening. Click a button, and see what’s going on with a friend you knew many many years ago. Traveling on business, and going to be in their town? Great, make plans for a meal.

Cautionary note, though. Do people just live their lives on sites? Some of them. But I think a good percentage of them also still have lives outside of the cyber world. At least the pictures I see of my nieces and nephews on Facebook would indicate so.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon about how these sites unite strangers that have similar interests. Like playing the accordion? You can find other tortured souls and chat about your hobby. Social groups are built on topical areas. A tremendous improvement, particularly people living in rural locals, or sections of the world where a hobby isn’t popular on a local basis.

I’ll never understand what people are talking about on their cellphone. And the times I overhear conversations, they seem really unimportant. But it indicates that people are staying in touch more and navigating the obstacles of life in a collaborative way. While it is unfortunate that I see critical thinking skills declining, this new generation is solving problems in their own unique way.

Perhaps its not so silly, after all.

The convergence of the new communication mediums is overwhelming and still relatively young. As these mediums mature, and unite, society will continue to evolve. What remains to be seen is if face to face contact, and trusting personal relationships will continue. Pixels on a screen will never replace a hug or pat on the back.

Jim said...

I've been thinking quite a bit about the entire social networking phenomenon.

Dave's comment is an excellent one, and touches on many areas of benefit that I would agree with, particularly in terms of being able to stay in touch, and social networking as a tool that potentially can deepen social capital and community.

His comment is also a rare one that goes beyond the usual pro-social networking drivel that assumes all technology is good and if you dare to question its value, you are immediately branded a Luddite.

As our technological options continue to multiply, thoughtful critiques become increasingly important. Blindly accepted anything is dangerous, IMHO.

The fact that I found your blog, via a Twellow search is proof of technology's ability to connect people that ordinarily might never meet, or wouldn't have the chance to interact around ideas and passions that we possess.

I've been blogging since 2004. While I periodically reassess why I do what I do, I still think my writing, thoughts, and opinions on the culture have reached a far wider audience than any kind of prior print publication might have been able to. Having said that, I still think there is room for print. Good lord, as a writer/publisher, with two books to my name and a third in formation, I certainly hope so.

Jim Burke said...

Jim, great to have you drop by. I've added your blogs in the sidebar.

I certainly agree with the need to question . . . to think critically . . . rather than blindly accepting. I continually return to Neil Postman's 1990 "Informing Ourselves to Death" speech for perspective.