Thursday, February 26, 2009

on social networks, paranoia, and the proper metaphor

(If you're one of my Facebook friends, I want to be clear: I'm not talking about you...I'm talking about the person behind you.)

For a long time, I resisted joining the rising internet trend of social networks. To the uninitiated, they struck me as remarkably similar to the "internet for dummies" approach of AOL...and the very thought of slipping into an AOL-esque wonderland of corporate stupidity made me shutter in fear.

Why? Two reasons. First, when I was getting my MA, some of my colleagues worked part time at AOL. Their job? Scouring the chat room transcripts and customer e-mails for "banned" words and phrases, so the offenders could be kicked off the service. That let me know that AOL was basically fascism rapped in the flag of "family friendly." Even at my then politically unenlightened state, something about this really gave me the heebie-jeebies. Thank goodness this kind of censorship doesn't still happen online, right?

Secondly, when I first met her, my lovely spousal unit subscribed to AOL for some unfathomable reason. I remember being over there and hearing the computer hard drive freaking out. When I asked spousal unit (then only "significant other unit"), she told me that AOL automatically updated their software on a normal basis. Yes, this means that they essentially hijacked her computer hard drive. This wouldn't be so bad if they were just providing bug fixes and security updates, but with the aforementioned censorship, I became very scared, paranoid, and suspicious. Plus, AOL's software was basically a bloated warthog anyway, and it had slowed her computer down to a crawl.

These factors led to my first attempt to classify social networking: it was like volunteering to have all your keg parties and weekend bashes observed by the KGB.

So this is what I thought of social networking. However, I was (by this time of my live) smart enough to know I couldn't entirely rely on my prior conceptions and really needed to figure out stuff for myself. Yes, I bit the bullet and signed up for my own MySpace account.

What happened when I dived into this new virtual playground? I would like to say that I learned the error of my ways and discovered a wonderland of openness and communication, entirely new models of interaction. However, at first, I was mostly listening to the sound of crickets. Then, however, something funny happened...I was contacted by someone from high school on whom I had a crush (and calling it anything other than that would be pure fiction on my part). Then I was contacted by another. And another. And then several long-lost high school friends.

What was funny about this, however, is how the conversations inevitably went. They would, on average, start with a "remember me?" message on either side, then a "this is what I've been up to" message, then no more than 2 attempts at ongoing conversation, then whomever contacted me would not reply to a message, and I'd go back to being out of touch with this person. This was the procedure the vast majority of the time.

I really started to get paranoid (or, as I'm going to start calling it, I went all "Mike") when contemplating the sudden fall-off of conversations. Did they quit talking to me after remembering what I was really like in high school? Were they put off by who I had become? Did they stop writing because they felt the whole idea of reestablishing ties with me was, in hindsight, a huge mistake?

I decided that maybe the lack of a real discussion was because of the forum, so I got myself a Facebook account (profile name Mike S. DuBose), and damnit, if the same thing didn't happen there. It is this point where I came up with my second social networking metaphor: it was a high school reunion attended by classmates with whom you didn't really have anything in common...and therefore only fun in the beginning when it was still a novel experience, or later on only if you keep drinking heavily.

After a while, I decided the whole social networking thing was silly. Instead, I put my energy/need to kill time into Twitter, which I found much more effective. It seemed to attract a much more serious clientele, revolving more around thinkers than "hey, remember me?" figures from your past. Twitter devotees just weren't interested in sending you survey/questionnaires/chain letters, inviting you to play games, or trying to trade fictional prizes and gifts...things that, much to my chagrin, seem to pervade MySpace and are starting to invade Facebook.

Twitter also has a simple yet awesome interface. I loved its 140 character format (which rewards brevity and works well as a 1-liner dump), but I liked that I got into funny, serious, and intriguing conversations...instead of empty "high school reunion" talk, which accounted for about 90% of my Facebook and MySpace experience. Twitterers seem to talk to you rather than just spout enigmatic oddities as they do in Facebook's status update (those of us who are truly weird, by the way, can be strange and say something meaningful). Simply put, Twitter is just better. So I abandoned both my MySpace and Facebook accounts for a good long while, twittered, blogged occasionally, and put the whole concept of social networking out of my head.

Then, however, I got the bright idea to see if I could cross-post my twitter feed into the mainstream social networking...mostly so I could use it all as promo for this blog. Myspace had no easy way to do it and refused to let me include links. Facebook, however, allowed for direct posting access. So I linked up my tweets with my status update and tried to re-embrace Facebook.

I discovered a few things. Facebook is easier to get non-internet-savvy people to join, for some reason. It also becomes tremendously more powerful when you get above the 50 friend mark...then there is enough input to guarantee a workable signal to noise ratio. In other words, you gotta get enough Facebooking junk to be able to find the good stuff.

I really only look at the status updates, though, so I am essentially using Facebook as an inferior version of Twitter. But this seems to be the method of use preferred by many users. I have one or two friends with whom I've IM'd via Facebook, but by and large, if I could convince five or six of my Facebook friends to move over to Twitter, I'd probably abandon it again.

Some Facebookers persist, however. When I asked a while ago why people Facebook, no one could give me a good answer. One friend, also disdainful of Facebook, had a great metaphor: it's like the bar in your town that sucks but you go to because your friends like it for some reason.

I like this. However, I always have real conversations in bars...or at least funny/bad/memorable conversations. The same rarely happens in Facebook. Contact there is usually fleeting, impermanent, and entirely surface.

Where else have I seen this?

Finally, last week, it hit me. Where did people just try to shock rather than engage? Indulge in two second bursts of conversation before going on about their day? Are more worried about the appearance of nicety than any real depth?

This led me to the perfect Facebook metaphor: Social networking is like being stuck the halls in high school between periods. It's a fine place if you really loved high school. However, for those who developed very few lifelong friends in high school, had hardly any lasting relationships, really deplored the shallow nature of the social structure, or just wished we were somewhere else, somewhere meaningful, well, it's not an ideal hangout. It's a place between places, an insignificant interstitiality, where seemingly nothing meaningful ever gets said or done.

I realize that it might sound like I'm being harsh here. There were plenty of people in high school who I really enjoyed, who I either hung out with constantly or wished I knew better. I had many great conversations, learned a lot by talking to people, and even gained a certain level of strange notoriety. I could work the limited social opportunities of the non-class periods of school well enough. However, people only ever really got me if we had the chance to get away from school and settle into the real work of knowing each other.

That kind of connection didn't happen between classes. Will it ever happen in an online place which is remarkably similar? I've had some very memorable Facebook moments, but frankly, the ratio is not all that high.

Facebook is high school between classes. It's a starter kit for sociality, a place to practice gaining and maintaining the connections. It's not a great place to live your life, though. Sooner or later, we're going to have to grow up and find a better way to really connect.

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