“social networking is superficial and is drastically changing our society and culture”
Thanks, Amanda, for an interesting topic.
Firstly, no, I don’t think social networking is superficial, but yes, it is drastically changing our society.
Social networking is not inherently superficial. I’ve been social networking since before it was called social networking. I started out on a Bulletin Board System (BBS) called Monochrome that was connected in the UK to a network called JANET (the Joint Academic Network). At the time, most of what went on on JANET used protocols called “Coloured Book”, and specifically a protocol called X.25. Internet access was a rarity in the UK, and unknown outside of academia. JANET added IP on top of the X.25 network in the early 90s, and the internet traffic quickly outpaced the X.25 traffic, so it wasn’t long before JANET moved to being solely internet based. This was all before Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, so things looked very different then. After we had internet service set up, I was also able to access another BBS called ISCABBS. Both of these BBSes still exist, though Mono is the only one I use now. Other Internet BBSes have come and gone. I imagine a few of the old style BBSes are still around, but I suspect their populations, these days, are very limited.
The websites for these BBSes didn’t exist back then, of course. You accessed them via a program called telnet, which provided an 80×24 terminal screen which displayed options, and you pressed various keys to access those options and navigate through. There were discussion boards, and the ability to send messages directly to other users. People could even send pictures to each other on monochrome. If you had access to a scanner, you could scan a picture, do a special encoding of it that just used plain text characters, upload this onto the boards, and then other people could email that file to themselves, decode it, and then display the resulting picture. By today’s standards, horribly frustrating and awkward but back then? Lots of fun!
Why am I in a reverie about these old systems? Because they really were early social networks. They display many of the features of social networks today. Someone would tell you about it, and you’d register to get an account. You’d then start interacting with other people who used it… from across the country, and even across the world. Some people used just monochrome, some people used just ISCABBS, several people used both, and other internet BBSes.
Many people formed strong friendships, and we wanted to get together to see these friends in person. So we did. Someone would pick a weekend to meet in a particular town, people in that town would offer their floor space or spare rooms as accommodation, and visitors would come and stay. Most of us were students back then, so sleeping on the floor wasn’t a big problem. Meeting people in real life like this was interesting. Some people were very clearly identical to how they appeared online. Others were very different in person. But friendships were born, and many of those friendships are still intact so many years later.
Bringing all this forward to present day, how do things look? The two biggest social networking platforms are Twitter and Facebook. I use these two platforms in two different ways, and I know that people who use them don’t always use them the same way I do.
People on twitter discuss a variety of topics, and with the use of hashtags can relatively easily find other like-minded people. As people you follow interact with the other twitterers, you can join in those public conversations and interact with new people as well. So you get to “meet” new people. While tweets themselves are essentially permanent, the nature of it is essentially ephemeral – a stream of discussion happening that you can hop into, participate in for a while, and then hop out of. But in the way I use it, I’ve seen strong friendships form, new hobbies found. People get together to meet these online friends at Tweetups.
Facebook I use somewhat differently. Personally I use it to connect and communicate with people I know elsewhere, usually people I’ve met in real life, but occasionally people I’ve met elsewhere online. It’s enabled me to reconnect with people from my past that I’ve not seen in a long time. Sometimes it’s helped me remember why I didn’t keep in touch in the first place. There are communities within Facebook where people who have common interests can discuss things. Sometimes discussions will lead to friendships. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of those communities arrange to get together to meet. I’m sure, also, that some friendships are formed through the conversations that form from comments on someone’s status update.
It’s also great for revealing how interconnected our relationships are. On more than one occasion I’ve noticed that people I know through completely different parts of my life are friends with each other – like meeting someone at an InterVarsity convention who went to college with Karyn, meeting someone at that same convention who is very close friends with someone I know from a board game convention, discovering that a board game friend of mine and a former colleague are friends.
So, are social networks superficial? No, social networks are a tool that we can use as we wish. Sure, there are some people who choose to use them in a superficial way, and to be honest, I wouldn’t say that I have the same level of relationship with all the people I interact with. I can see, of course, how one might think there’s inherent superficiality, when one compares the list of “friends” I have on facebook with the number of people I have genuine friendships with. That, however is a matter of terminology, which has blurred the meaning of the word friend. Has social networking made people more superficial? I don’t think so, it’s just made those superficial relationships more visible, more public.
I used to do a lot of swing dancing when I lived in London. I danced with a lot of people, many of whom were regulars at the various events. Some I formed friendships with, but most were just people I knew the names of, I might know what they did for a living, and I knew how well they danced. But if you weren’t part of the dance crowd, you’d likely know very little about all those people I knew. If Facebook had been around then, I would, no doubt, have friended most of the people I danced with, not just the ones I had become good friends with, but the ones I didn’t know nearly as well. Would those relationships be any more superficial because of Facebook? No, just more visible to those who knew me from other areas of my life. In fact, it’s possible that as I interacted with them on Facebook, I might get to know them even better than I might just at dances.
Is social networking drastically changing our society? Absolutely! So did the invention of the alphabet, the printing press, radio, television. These things were all, at the time, things that concerned philosophers about the effect they would have on society. By and large we have learned to deal with these new technologies to make it a part of our society without it consuming it. Have we learnt yet how to appropriately deal with social networking? Not yet. I think there’s been some progress, but it’s still all so new that we haven’t yet had time to learn. I am, however, confident we will. In fact, this reminds me of a Diane Rehm Show broadcast on NPR, about a book published this year called Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. I’ve not read the book yet, but the transcript of the show makes some very interesting reading. Perhaps I shall revisit this topic once I’ve found some time to read the book.
How do you feel about social networking?
Are relationships more superficial because of it?
Is it going to cause the downfall of our society?
How do you deal with the challenges that our connected world brings?