I am a social networker. But I have issues...as they say. This is my manifesto.
I have been an official social networker for only a little less than two years. I joined facebook as a result of frequent nagging from my friends and my own insatiable curiosity. Now, two years later, I am stepping back to evaluate how the social networking phenomenon has changed my life.
My life up to this point has followed a predictable pattern - elementary, middle school, junior high, high school, college, grad school, marriage, children, jobs, and various relocations. They say that you're lucky if you make one or two true-blue friends in the course of your entire lifetime. Like most people, as the years passed I was able to maintain contact with a few friends from each one of my life stages, along with my one or two "superfriends."
But there have always been many, many others who had somehow gotten separated from me along the way. Time, circumstances, and the force of change frequently drive friends and acquaintances apart. I was left wondering, "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" And more often than not, the unsatisfactory answer in my head was that I would probably never know.
Then came facebook.
My first few weeks on the site were refreshing. It was like attending a class reunion without all the angst associated with actually having to go. I was astounded to receive friend requests from people I not spoken to (or even thought of, in some cases) in twenty years. I re-kindled old friendships and delighted...for the most part...in finding human connections every time I logged on.
The most fascinating feature about facebook was the allure of the status update. That oh-so-tempting question in the little box at the top of the page: "What's on your mind?"
Really? I thought. The world wants to know what's on my mind? Well, let's see here, a whole lot of stuff! I've got opinions, ideas, and a great life. So I'll just share all about it, since you asked! And while I'm at it, lemme peer into what's on everybody else's minds. I would like to share what I think about their thoughts, too.
And so it began. The endless compulsion to update. To reach out. To entertain. All through that little status update. And why was it so alluring? Because people respond! (Unlike this blog, which rarely gets any comments unless a New Kid on the Block tweets a link to it...full story is here.) But I can instantly tell my 450 facebook friends about the lady at Shoney's who claimed that a roach crawled across her plate just so she could get a free dinner, and instantly, dozens of them are agreeing with me that people have no dignity anymore.
I began to contemplate parts of my day in the form of status updates. In the midst of washing dishes, I found myself crafting a witty one in my head and then running to the computer to share it. And after wading into the waters of Twitter, I found myself doing the same thing there. Before I knew it, I had two separate social networks to manage, which took no small amount of time. Who among social networkers has not, at least once, fallen into the abyss of wasted time -- where what seemed to be only a short half-hour was, in actuality, two?
I asked myself the questions: why are these social networks so popular and successful? How have they managed to permeate our lives in these recent years? Why does every advertisement now carry a line at the bottom beseeching us to follow them on twitter or become their fan on facebook? And above all, why have I been sucked into this vortex?
Of course, there are the boring, practical reasons. It's a simple way to reach many people at once. If you're moving to a new town, then everyone in your social circle can know at the click of a mouse. If you want to invite as many people as possible to some event, it has never been easier to do so. And if you want to have a private group discussion with a few select friends, facebooking is even better than e-mail.
But there are some deeper issues at work contributing to the wildfire success of these sites. Every human being on the planet wants to connect with other people. We are made that way. Social creatures obviously like to be social. In some strange way, these communities are meeting some core human needs. Facebook exploits the term "friends" (as if one could ever assign a real numerical value to the number of valued connections in their life.) But simply look to your facebook profile, and there, for all the world to see, is the fact that you have X number of friends. Therefore, you can either pat yourself on the back, or, well, go to a corner and cry, if you actually take that seriously.
The term “followers,” as it relates to twitter, is also a loaded one, with a connotation of a throng of people behind you hanging on your every word (or tweet), a brilliant strategy on the part of twitter’s founders. So of course, all tweeters are conscious of their follower numbers, as evidenced by tweets like, “Oh no! I lost a follower!” And, “Wow, I gained 50 followers overnight!” And, my personal favorite, “Goodbye, follower, I didn’t need you anyway,” (which, if that were true, the departure of said follower obviously would not have warranted a tweet.) Follower numbers, as a whole, represent credibility in terms of influence. The more followers one has, the more “respected” that tweeter seems to be among the rest of the community.
But whether the voice is far-reaching or not, everybody wants to have one. We all want to be heard. Social networking provides a platform for us. Our very own soapbox, in some cases. And though some might not be brave enough to venture into the realm of politics or religion, they can, at the very least, express why they love milkshakes from Chick-Fil-A. Every time their friends click the "like" button, that facebooker is given not only another reason to bond with those friends, but a dose of personal validation. A pat on the back.
Generally, I tweet in the hopes that someone will respond to what I have to say. When they do, I am delighted. When they don't, I wonder why. When my tweets get “re-tweeted,” or forwarded, I feel especially gratified, as if that somehow proves the worth of my thought.
Which brings me to the more difficult questions I posed to myself:
Why should I care about what the rest of the world thinks about what I think/do/feel/like/say? Don't social networks provide rather shameless environments for ego-feeding? After all, everyone's pages are all about themselves. Millions and millions of numero uno's. After thinking of life in terms of status updates and tweets for many months, I realized that I basically get sick of myself. I also noticed that when I stepped away from facebook and twitter for a time, I felt like I could breathe. There weren't any "voices" in my head, chattering away about mostly meaningless and mundane things. My talking stamp collection got quiet, but for the sake of clarity, it was all for the best in my life.
I still update my pages. I do realize that the world has irreversibly changed. The way that we communicate has been revolutionized, probably forever. Now that social networks exist, they will never cease. However, I have a bit of a new perspective. I've learned several things in recent months:
1) Periodic technology fasts are beneficial, in the same way that we used to re-format floppy disks. Our brains need breaks.
2) Sometimes it is more gratifying to be content with one's own thoughts, rather than broadcasting all of them to the world...even the really good ones that are just burning to come out.
3) Time is precious and fleeting. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way. Just because the abyss is ever-present does not mean that we have to fall into it.
4) A phone call to a real person is infinitely better than a status update.
5) What we think/do/feel/like/say is not required to be validated by someone else's "like", "re-tweet", or "comment" buttons. It is true that we are social creatures, but we are individuals first.
Now, who wants to comment? Don't worry - I'm not holding my breath.
Until next time...