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The socialite, the social network and the outcast

June 21, 2011

I am not the first person to think (or write) things such as what follows, but feel the need to express them here anyway:

There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between social behavior, and social networks.  Social networks allow one to keep people at arms length, or further, rather than have meaningful conversations– all this while increasing the virtual contact with other people (both the number of people that one is “connected” to, and many times one “communicates” with those people.)  It is the illusion of the social.

I was not certain where my initial revulsion to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc… came from, but the revulsion was (and to a decent part, still is) there.  On the face of it, these places provide a means and an opportunity to share your life with many people– some of them people who are separated by geography, some of them people that you wish to keep at an arm’s length (or further.)   The problem is: these relationships take the skin out of the game.  They are superficial– because they are, by design, subsets of the “real you” distilled for online consumption; they are a poor substitute for genuine humanity.

The contexts are mixed online, and in ways that significantly make social networks dangerous.  People are not one thing to everybody.  My mom shared a story (a decently long time ago) with me once that helps to clarify this:

My mom was involved in a great many activities at college, and she had a collection of different people who were friends.  In many cases, these people had things in common.  In many others, the thing they had in common was her.  She had said that she thought she’d have a get-together, and introduce them to one another (after all, if they all were her friends, they could also be friends with one another.)   Now, it being years ago, I don’t recall the specifics, other than to say that I am pretty sure this story was a lesson for me: Not all of your friends will like one another, even though they like you.  The get-together did not go as planned.

The logic makes sense, it is almost like transitive math, until you put real personality into the picture.  The math.  A likes B and C.  B likes D and E.  C likes F and G.  Therefore A should like D and E, and F and G.   Put them in a set, and A thru G should be one big posse.  Enter human nature: We are not one thing to many people, we are many things to many people.

The partitioning of our selves into different aspects is common in the real world.  It is essential, in some cases.  Many people are blessed with doing the things that they love for a living.   In order to pay the bills, many others take one kind of job, and keep their passions in their projects and hobbies.  (The reasons are varied and numerous for this, and outside of the scope of the blog post.  Rest assured, if you allow for this as a premise, I can take you somewhere useful.)  Some people call this particular division “Work/Life Balance”.  We do work at work, we do home at home.  At work, we use different skills (and are often required to deal with people we might not otherwise choose to spend time with), and therefore, we are, essentially, someone else.  This division is greater for some people than others, but usually, there is some sort of split.  (When there isn’t a split, it is usually the “home” persona that suffers.)

We have the self that we show to the world in general.  We have the self that we show to acquaintances.  We have the self that we share with friends, with our extended families, with our immediate families, with our partners…  And then there is the self that we show to no one, or not if we can help it.  There are places where we feel insecure, and places where we feel confident.  There are personalities that we use to adapt to each of these situations.

Social Networks collapse these boundaries, and force, in many, the integration of these multiple personas in ways that may not be healthy.  They place the sum total of the people you have known in your life (at least those who are online, and on the network) into one great big mixer of a get-together.  They encourage the sharing of photos, and thoughts, and the bringing together of people.  The impersonal nature of the social networks mean that the context for such communication is blurry at best.  The fact that policies that govern the information you place there make it unclear which acquaintances of your acquaintances can actually see what you put there, you make a trade off.  For the people who care, you post what you post.  You let your guard down, and assume that what you post for a small group will interest a small group of your “Friends”.  And indeed, those who think like you have the offline context to understand the posts and shares.  Those people who do not know you in that context (and perhaps, the world, depending on your settings), can see such communications in a different they set based on what they don’t know about you, and form certain opinions of you that can spill over into your real world interactions with them.

So, you say, don’t “Friend” them.  Were it that simple.  People find you, and you are, after all, in a public forum.  Many peoples’ default is simply to go ahead and let these people in.  The other option says “I do not like you, get away.”  — even if it isn’t fully what you intend.

Let’s say you’re out with your family at the park (do people even do that anymore?).  You see someone from work there, and they notice you, and start to approach.  Very few of us say “Hey–I’m with my family.  You are ‘work’.  Talk to you on Monday.”  We are not wired to do that.  We are wired to seek out other people, and society marks that type of behavior as “rude.”  So there is a more polite way to handle this.  “Hey Bob..  How are you doing?” (and we don’t care–this question never means that, it is one of the social niceties meant to keep things civil.)  We hope that Bob will answer with the socially acceptable “OK..  out with the family?”  so you can say “yeah … we’re having great family time.” .. We hope  Bob won’t actually tell us how he’s feeling–we simply don’t see Bob that way 🙂

The point of the above is that it is awkward to have someone peek over the wall into our private lives, even if we know them somewhat.  It is even more awkward to have to figure out how to tell them “no”, without making this online slight turn into an offline slight.  The alternative, again, is to let them in.  And this is where a scenario plays out that is  “Six Degrees of Separation”  meets “Oprah” meets “Lord of the Flies”, and the walls that keep our lives sane can crumble.   It is how people wind up with hundreds of Facebook friends, and forget what it is like to hang out with real friends.

Partly, this is by system design.  Facebook is a company, with share-holders, and profit incentives.  They are interested in getting the largest set of “people you know” communicating with one another superficially.  They want the eyeballs to show content to, they want the bellies and the gullets to feed, they want the backs needing shirts and the feet needing shoes.  With everyone all in one place, they want to perform some educated guesswork on what it is you want, and then provide you (and your posse), on a platter, to those people who sell it.  They are not interested in the many yous.  They are interested in the one with the credit card.  Again, “companies making profit” is not a bad thing, but when you choose to spend your time (hours, days) on social networks such as Facebook, remember that it is not you that they want.

Facebook does not believe in multiple personas.  It is believed that you are who you are, and should be one thing to everyone– after all, what do you have to hide?

People are wired to behave differently in public than others.  Some people are true socialites, and they lay it all out bare, in public sight, on public sites.  Facebook is perfect for people who measure their worth in the number of people who can see them, and want to see what they are up to.  I think most people want to “be liked” … and they want to share meaningful things with people.  Putting people in a situation where they are among “Friends” makes them share more… after all, “these are 500 of my closest friends!  what could go wrong?”.

Our lives are more online than ever.  That is true for most people.  To what degree differs.  People who wish to interact with us know this.  Prospective employers, people from our past that we’d rather leave there, you name it.  What we are encouraged to say to our closest Facebook friends has great impact on our privacy.  We take part in the pseudo-conversation, and risk exposing information to people (unintended third parties, friends of friends of friends, etc..) that have no right otherwise to see it.   Our employers can spy on us, find things they don’t like, and find reasons to no longer employ us.  Our future employers can see into our private lives in ways that are not legally available to them otherwise.   People that we want to avoid can find out what we are doing, what we are thinking.  Perhaps you can make a list of your own group of people that you would never dream of saying some of the things that people say on Facebook to.  Chances are, with a little work, and possibly very little work, they can read it, in multi-media glory.

Online can be an escape, and it most likely has become so for many.  It certainly can feel liberating to invent yourself in a brand new persona, a personal self that exists only on the web.  A person maybe you would never have the courage to be in real life.

These social networks fill a gap in our current society.  Driven to be online more than ever, and to put more of ourselves online, we are left with a chasm between real emotion, and online wordplay.   Sure.. we can be “Friends” on Facebook:  There’s  no skin in the game.  As long as our paths are somewhat and in some ways intersecting, we can share two directional one-way dialogue all day long.

In a world where our lives are moving at break-neck speeds to “online”, a real hunger for actual human contact is being met with the trappings of a virtual society– a place we call home that is akin to a digital refugee camp.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Albert Perini permalink
    August 16, 2011 1:26 am

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

  2. tina permalink
    January 29, 2012 7:46 am

    this was by far the most brilliant, well-justified take on social networking sites i have read. but most importantly, a lot of what you have written,is sadly,true. i second that we have shades of our personality reserved for different people. only few people ,the extremely outgoing types have nothing to hide. its sad that we are caught up in a situation where we deal with merging all those shades into something even we cannot imagine,allowing people to have random perceptions of us, and effectively confusing our relationships with our ‘friends’.

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