2.16.2009

Relationships in the Digital Era


An article in yesterday's Inky explores the extent to which Facebook and other social networking sites are an indicator of the growing narcissism and exhibitionism of our generation. If so, I must be twice as narcissistic and exhibitionist than most, seeing as how I was able to squeeze not one but two "25 Random Things" out in the past month.

I wonder, though, if this isn't just a misunderstanding of one generation about another generation's comfort level with the digital, as opposed to analog, life. Consider, for example, three characteristics of the digital era:

* Volume of information does not equate with a subject's importance. People's crankiness about how Wikipedia can't be legit because Britney Spears has a longer entry than St. Augustine belies an outdated measuring stick for prioritizing importance. If Britney's page goes on and on, that does not squeeze out space from covering St. Augustine, since digital "space" isn't constrained like a physical encyclopedia's.

* Real and virtual have become blurred. The virtual worlds of the past, like MMPORGs and MMUDs, were meant as escapes from the real world (unless I've badly mischaracterized this population and they actually do want to be orcs and faeries in real life). The virtual worlds of today are meant as complements of the real world (or is it the other way around, when I learn more about my friends through Facebook than through face-to-face conversations?).

* Everything is real-time. Who needs to wait for tomorrow's paper or next week's issue when everyone is tweeting, live-blogging, and pod-casting? We always wanted this sort of immediacy; the digital era has simply made it much more possible.

I would argue that, in most cases, Facebook doesn't cause isolation; rather, it is a response to it. Think about our parents' generation: one hometown, one extended family, one job. Who needed to manage countless circles of relationships and nuanced layers of conversations when everything was so analog? The splintering of our lives, by geography and roles and relationships, makes Facebook a very efficient way to maintain human contact and value human interaction.

Do people substitute Facebook for human contact? Undoubtedly. Do people use Facebook to cling to old glory days instead of forging new ones? I'm sure. But "poking," "friending," and even "25 Random Things" is no indicator of an unprecedented narcissism; it's merely a digital-era manifestation of the same characteristics we've always had: we need human contact, relationships are important, and it matters to us that people know important things about us.
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