May 6, 2009

Reaching out farther apart

I'm not a fan of this "social networking" phenomenon. I can hardly go a day in the presence of others without hearing the terms "facebooking" or "twittering" being flung around as if they have already become verbs assimilated into traditional English. Even at work, I feel like I'm surrounded by twittering twits and myspace cadets. It's actually kind of an amusing and fascinating scene up here at the Gemini observatory. All four of us sitting side by side at three long tables joined together, each of us with our noses buried in our respective laptops for most of the night, carrying out our own specialized long-distance communications while barely paying attention to what's happening on either side of us.

I think that accurately symbolizes of the irony of the online social networking explosion. Supposedly it helps us meet all sorts of new people from all around the world with ease and forge valuable friendships and social networks. Why, it virtually eliminates the need to head outside and meet people in the real world, as in coffee shops, bookstores, or dog parks! The initial mainstreaming of the world wide web and e-mail was only the beginning; now sites like facebook, myspace, and who knows how many dozens of other knockoffs automate things even further and make it even easier for people to remain in the privacy of their homes while meeting people from around the world.

The advantage to this pervasiveness of social inter-connectivity through virtual means is that the world now seems smaller than ever. People who interact globally obviously have much broader cultural horizons than those who don't. It is easier than ever to meet people who you know share many things in common with you before you even speak to them for the first time.

The drawback is that it's turning more and more people into recluses who couldn't tell you who their next door neighbor is because they're too busy having their noses buried in their monitors for several hours a day rather than interacting with real people in their own neighborhood. The sense of local community and community involvement becomes increasingly eroded. Decades ago, shy people were forced to overcome their social anxieties to do a banking transaction, to submit a resume, to find a potential friend for companionship. The fact that all of that can be done online now must certainly be comforting to social recluses, but it can also make them overly dependent on technology for happiness. With tools that allow them to prolong confronting their anxieties and aggressively seeking psychiatric treatment, perhaps indefinitely, they may be doing more harm to themselves then they realize. As we become increasingly connected through wires, we become more and more distanced from each other in the flesh. I don't think I like the way that's heading.

At any rate, I have no interest personally in social networking sites, probably because I'm just not that interested in meeting a bunch of people.

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