Some random thoughts on technology and social networking.
My wife commented to me the other day that someone she used to know 25 years ago just “friended” her on Facebook. She hasn’t spoken to this person for more than 25 years, and now they are reconnecting. It got me thinking about how the internet and computers (and to a larger degree social networking) is changing our society.
There is little doubt about how technology and the internet have changed us – both as a species and as a society. There are many studies out there about how “the blackberry phenomenon” (instant notifications of emails) has literally changed how our brains think. All you need to do is look at someone continually checking their smartphone when it “dings” to see if they have a new email. Look how many people now consider a cell phone “essential” because they never want to be out of contact with others. One complaint about some smartphones which act more like mini computers is that they make it more difficult to actually use it as a phone – if you are using GPS while driving, what do you do if you get a call? People ignore the fact that a few years ago, getting a call while driving was impossible, yet we still survived and prospered. Technology has also changed how we communicate. How many people now text someone instead of calling them? Send an email instead of walking down the hall for a face to face meeting? Only time will tell how this shift in communication and direct social interaction may alter our species.
Likewise, there is little doubt that the internet has also changed our society by allowing people with similar thoughts and ideas to communicate directly with each other. In many cases this is good, because people with common interests and likes can connect to others with the same interests. Like the iPhone, Valiant comics, cigars? There are forums dedicated to people with the same passions. In addition, people afflicted with various diseases or problems now have a large support group upon which they can draw assistance. But there is a down side as well. It is no coincidence that the rise of the internet was followed by a rise in groups espousing white supremacy, child pornography, and other groups that are discouraged in normal society. Just as others did, people with fringe beliefs now can find others that share their views – lending credence and worth to beliefs, opinions, attitudes, or behaviors that were (and generally still are) considered unacceptable.
But that is mostly just looking at the internet and technology, which allows us to connect and share with other people or have instant notification of communication. I am curious as to how technologies and services like Facebook and Twitter are changing us as a society and as a species. In the not so distant past, when people and families did not move around to much, your generally grew up and lived in the same neighborhoods, knew the same people all your life. Towards the middle and end of the 20th century, families started to move around more. People lost touch with some friends, but they made new friends where they moved. You may no longer keep in touch with your best friend from third grade, your prom date, or your neighbor across the street when you were growing up, but you had other friends and contacts that replaced them. Suddenly, with new technology like Facebook and MySpace, you now are getting back in contact with those previous friends and acquaintances – while still making and maintaining knew contacts as well. Is there a limit to how many people you can “know”? I have heard a lot of people say they feel overwhelmed by the effort they spend in keeping up their friendships, so where does it end? How many friends is “too many”? Some psychologists argue that there is such a thing as a “facebook disease” (my term) where people feel the obsessive need to try and have as many friends and social contacts as possible. This kind of behavior is only going to be exacerbated by websites such as facebook, where people may feel the need to have hundreds and thousands of “friends” in their portfolio.
And how does it affect our society when seemingly random people can suddenly start meeting and interacting with much greater ease? Do people start feeling an inflated sense of importance when they have hundreds of “followers” of Twitter? When you are privy to everyone actions and thoughts at any given moment, what does that do to the person who is being followed? What does that mean about the followers? Websites and forums were one thing, where you can interact with people who have similar beliefs and interests…but social networking and twitter are complete different. Do I really need to know what Joe Schmoe is doing every minute of the day with Twitter feeds and facebook status updates? What does that do to our society, in terms of both biological aspects (like attention span) as well as more social or psychological aspects (like a need to feel recognized, a need to feel important). Will we start to hear about depression being caused because someone doesn’t feel liked due to the fact they only have 5 followers on Twitter? Will everyone start to feel a need to become something of an exhibitionist, displaying every thought, emotion, and action to the whole world, seeking either approval, acceptance, or just having people acknowledge their existence?
We live in interesting times. The rapid development of communication technology, the internet, and social sites in many ways have made our lives much easier, more productive, and more fun. But there are some potential issues that may affect our society as these technologies and websites become more popular and more ingrained in our identity (both societal and self identity). Remember what it was like when you saw your first commercial that had a website listed? Already companies are listing their Facebook and Twitter names –do I really want to be “friend” my local car dealership? It will be interesting to see what the future holds and how these technologies will change our biology, change our society, and change our concepts of self and friends, and how we interact with people. As people start to feel more connected, maybe a desire for solitude, a desire to disconnect will start to become a fashionable trend or goal. Maybe we as a species will get overloaded with connections, contacts, and start to pull away from each other. Only time will tell.
Now maybe I will go post a link to this on my Twitter and Facebook pages. After all, I am important, have lots of friends, and everyone wants to know what I am thinking!