Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It's the network

I'm worried about the Internet. I'm starting to wonder what effect it's having on us as a global society. That is to say, the Internet seems to have made us into a global community, but is that a good thing or not?

I still remember after all these years that night I managed to hear Timothy Leary talking about the great wonder that the World Wide Web would be, and how it would allow us to all come together and communicate in a new and better way. There's a certain sense in which I think this is true. The Web has continued in the decade and a half it's been in existence to make great strides forward in increasing the ways we can interact. I wonder...does increasing the ways of and opportunities for interaction with other people actually increase the quality of that interaction?

There was a phenomenon that I noticed about the very portions of the Internet that are designed for ease of interaction. I'm sure I'm not the first one to notice and comment on this by far, but in the Internet age, we've redefined the word "friend". I think the thing that I'd seen that did it for me was a short article in the newspaper sometime very early in the election cycle. The article informed me that certain candidates had such-and-such thousands of "friends" on their MySpace pages, and that if the number of "friends" a person had was an indication of their likelihood of winning, then so-and-so surely had the election in the bag.

Thousands of friends? I suddenly realized the silliness of it. Nobody has thousands of friends, but there are probably many who have thousands of "friends". Professional and amateur philosophers have discussed throughout time what friendship means, and how deeply one needs to care about another before they can be considered a friend. How deeply do I need to care about someone to call them a "friend"? Enough to click a button next to their name on my computer to add them to a list.

Actually, you don't need to care that much; I'm sure all these politicians who collected thousands of "friends" on their MySpace pages didn't even actually take the time to even click buttons, but simply had a staffer set up a page, and told them to click on anyone who indicated interest in becoming "friends". Heh, I did that once. In eighth grade, when I got my yearbook and it was time to go around to friends and have them write "Your a grate friend. Have a cool summer." I actually hired a seventh grader to circulate my yearbook for me. It was a sort of social experiment. I told him I'd give him a penny for every signature he collected, and I probably got the signature of three-quarters of the school (which lucky for me was a small school). How many actual friends did I have though? Probably about half a dozen, and I made no new friends in the process, not even the kid who did the legwork for me, whom I chose at random. The truth is, I didn't regret not having as many friends as I had signatures. The few friends I had were great guys, and really, who could sustain relationships with a couple hundred kids?

There really is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I'm not a member of any social networking sites, but I do have a free account on Classmates.com, a site that really illustrates this concept best to me. I went to a small-town high school, and so when I look up my Classmates links for my high school graduating class, there are around fifty people, and at one point, I knew them all. Conversely, when I look at the graduating class for my college, there are several hundred people, and I don't know a single one of them.

It's interesting to me that I did go to a small enough school that I knew my entire graduating class. I went to high school long enough ago that the World Wide Web wasn't even a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee's eye yet, and while the Internet and e-mail were beginning to show some prominence, I'd never heard of either one.

Now, I'm not saying that it's impossible to have real friends on the Web; I have a small handful of people that I know only from online interaction, yet consider them my friends. (Heck, if Steve Wells were in my neighborhood and called me up, I feel close enough I'd invite him out for a coffee, even though to call him a friend would probably be a stretch.) Yet consider, if I'd had access to the Internet during my high school years, and I'd occasioned to spend as much time using it as I do today, would I have had the time to make as many "IRL" friends as I did?

There's something really cool and culturally powerful about being able to reach out and make contacts with people from across the world. Sitting on the floor of my living room in California and chatting with some guy from Finland is incredible, but am I really likely to make anything like the sort of connection I will make from talking face to face with a family member?

This is why I worry. In many aspects the dreams of the two Tims are alive and well: the ability to communicate globally with just about anyone at any time opens us up to culture in a way that was never possible before, but we have to pay for the opportunity with the valuable resource of time. We have to choose between the world at large and the world "at small" if you will. When the Internet is sometimes the thing you end up with more time to devote to, there can be a sadness to it. At least, I know there is for me. As the economy globalizes and the information we deal in globalizes, people become much more mobile and physically disconnected. Marauder seems to be one of my closest friends these days, yet he lives on the opposite side of the country in a state I've never even visited. He's a great guy, but what sort of friendship can that really be? When all of your close friends live hundreds of miles away, it's hard for them to feel "close". Through the Internet, I can communicate with all my friends every day, but still feel profoundly lonely, as I wonder whether, without physical proximity, they may just be "friends".


marauder said...

Can you believe it? Kathleen O'Brien at the Star-Ledger stole your idea! She wrote a column about the cheapening of the word "friend" in today's society.

Brucker said...

I'm pretty sure you're joking, but nonetheless, I think I'm far from the first person to recognize the silliness of "friends". Actually, I made a bit of a statement about it probably somewhere near ten years ago by now when I added someone to my "friends" list on Delphi who was being a jerk. I don't remember what brought it on, but I told him, "Hey, how could you say things like that about me when you're my friend?"

I like the observation O'Brien makes about "friending" as a verb, though. That's an important aspect of the phenomenon that I didn't even think of.

Verification word: "demon"

marauder said...

I have nothing to add, except to note that my verification word is "roppi," which has the form of an infinitive in Esperanto.