Friday, October 16, 2009


Let's imagine for a moment that there's this amazing thing called the facebook status update, let's say. At any given point in your life, you can post what you're up to so your friends know instantaneously that you're doing something awesome--making cookies, for example. They can then respond to you in whatever manner they deem appropriate, be it "liking" your status, posting a reply to your status, or actually showing up at your doorstep to sample the goods. In theory, it promotes furthering some kind of relationship with the people who you're close enough to be friends with on the internet.

In theory, social networking tools like facbeook, twitter--even blogs maybe--purport to keep you in touch with your friends and moving forward with them. If you always know what the other is up to, you can respond to them, interact with them, create with them in an ever-faster way. That's got to be good for friendships, right?

Well, tonight, as I logged in to facebook to look up the start time for the symphony rehearsal that James and I are going to tomorrow, it struck me that most social networking relationships actually happen in the past. Ideally, relationships happen dynamically, in the present tense. I talk to you; you respond to me; we move forward together. The thing with facebook or twitter or what-have-you, however, is that unless you're logged in every single moment, you're always a step behind. Especially for someone like me, who logs into facebook every few days maybe, the status update is something that gets backed up and forgotten: with all those friends posting all those instantaneous status updates, of course there's no way I will ever see them all in a timely manner. Some will drop off the bottom of my feed and will be lost to digital oblivion forever; some I will see days later...if I'm not careful, I fall into the catching-up trap, where I spend all my time simply reading everyone's backlog status updates and never even talking to anyone that I care about. Luckily, that doesn't happen very often. But it strikes me as the fatal flaw of internet relationships.

Sure, it's nice to see what people are up to. It's nice to be able to read about someone's life on my own time. I don't think I want to give it up entirely--throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. But the problem seems to be that with so much information all at once, you're never going to be interacting with someone else in real time. You're always out of phase, responding to each other in time lapse, passing each other but not quite touching, if that makes sense. It may be better than nothing, in some cases, or it may be impeding a real relationship in others. I don't know. But I do know that I'm very careful not to assume that anyone has necessarily seen anything that I've posted in the internet, be it on facebook, this blog, or whatever else. And I hope that no one out there is assuming that I know everything about them because they posted it somewhere. I still need the real, both-of-us-present-at-the-same-time kind of communication to make the internet quasi-communication real. And I hope that's always the case.


DocSocrates said...

I'm not sure if I agree that the time-delayed nature of social networking is really a "fatal" flaw. First, there are those that are constantly tapped in (through their phones), receiving updates as they go throughout the day. That seems to be especially true of twits (AKA "those who tweet").

Since I am not one of those persons, I leave it aside because I want to grant your case as it stands. But I think there are some things that are important to keep in mind.

(1) Social networking cannot be seen as a replacement model for real relationships. I use Facebook occasionally, but it hasn't changed any of my normal day-to-day activities regarding my family and friends. It's not like I stop talking to my wife just because I happened to catch her update status.

(2) The time-lag also exists when talking to other people in person. When I call my parents on the phone, it's almost an obligatory part of the conversation to bring each other up to speed on what has happened since we last talked. I let them know what I've been up to: it's kind of like having them read a backlog of status updates.

Hence, most relationships have to deal with this "time lag" issue. Even with those we see and interact with on a daily basis. Of course, the content is richer when we interact face-to-face. But, as I said, social networking should never be a substitute for such interaction with those we are truly close with.

(3) I've noticed that you seem to be grappling with the role of internet social media in our lives. Why is that? It seems to be an issue that you think is of great importance.

In my mind, the benefits of such social media far outweigh its costs. Access to information, new media forms, increased ability to communicate...the list is just endless. Here I am interacting with you on your blog from 1500 miles away.

What are you afraid of? ;-)

* * * said...

Heh. Good points, all of them. A few things, though.

As far as time-lag goes, yes. It exists in all relationships to some extent, since you're not ever with someone for every second of every day. I guess it's not the time-lag itself that is so horrible but the time-lag spun out over 130-or-what-have-you "friends." When I catch up with one person, it's because I'm interested in knowing what they've been up to, what they've been thinking about, how they're doing. When I catch up on facebook, I end up reading hundreds of updates from different people. I guess it's the difference between intentionally catching up because you're interested in the relationship you have with the other person and catching up simply because the information is there in front of you. I don't like time-lag, and I'd rather eradicate it by talking with someone in particular who I care about and am invested in than by reading lots of random different people's status updates.

I'm not actually totally anti-internet communication, by the way, even though it might sound like it. heh. I'm just trying to figure it out. I just always come back to the idea of how many people are involved here. A friendship to me seems like it should be one-to-one: you both talk to and respond to each other. Sometimes, other people will be involved too--you'll get information about your friend from another friend; it'll lead to all three of you being closer, whatever. But at what point are you trying to be close with too many people? With facebook, I think the trap is thinking that you can post something and that everyone on your friends list will then be closer to you for knowing what you said. But there are just too many people there for that to be the case: some people like me won't see it because they won't log in, some people won't see it because it's already pushed off the bottom of their feed, I'm sure there are all sorts of reasons. I guess I just worry that we're being sucked into thinking that just reading about someone or putting something up about yourself constitutes a relationship. I don't think it does, and I'm sure a lot of other people don't think so, either, but I worry about it I guess.