Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do social networks actually curb individualism?

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/20/08

Is a new generation gap opening? While the term “generation gap” is often used to describe the different tastes, fashions and generational experiences of children and their parents and grandparents, the term originally arose in the 1960s referring to the differences in the Baby Boom generation and their parents and grandparents. The best explanation for it, other than the incredible size of the Baby Boomers, is that the Boomers were the first generation to be raised on television, that the gap was a case of the influence of television.

Have advances in computer technology and the growing presence and importance of the Internet created a similar gap with today’s youth and its Baby Boomer parents and grandparents?

I admit sometimes to being baffled and amazed (amaffled?) at how high schoolers and college students utilize the “social networking” sites. If I already sound like I am sprinkling in a foreign language, then that is more evidence for the presence of a gap. Social networking Web sites are just Web-based software where communities of people can share information through a variety of means: e-mail, text postings, pictures, videos, chatting, file-sharing. At this point, I will not be surprised at the first pregnancy conceived entirely through some kind of file-sharing breakthrough.

In my early 20s, I began using the computer to communicate through e-mail and an early form of “instant messaging.” Both were crude compared to today’s remarkable technologies. And while I am not on the cutting edge of these technologies, I do utilize them both professionally and personally. Things, however, are changing.

Ten years ago many of my college students were computer illiterate and I spent time introducing them to the use of e-mail and simple file-sharing. I don’t have to do that anymore. Just a few short years ago, I could contact any student, quickly, with e-mail. But today, students don’t check their e-mail as much as they used to, because of the use of the social networking sites and text messaging on their cell phones.

The social networking sites are everywhere on the Web. A quick Google search shows hundreds and hundreds of social networking sites with MySpace and Facebook among the most popular. Given less press, however, is AdultFriendFinder, which has over 20 million registered users, where adults seek adults for pleasure.

Most of the press coverage of the networking sites are about the perils of such sites for their mostly young users: stalking by online predators; vicious gossip; faux sites that caricature authorities; and harassment. Recently, the fundraising prowess of Sen. Obama and the use of social networking sites in political campaigning received more positive press coverage.

I also see something of a “borg”-like quality for those who use these sites as a central means of communication. The “borg” were an alien menace species from the Star Trek television series which was technologically connected to each other to create a single shared consciousness. All borg heard the thoughts of all other borg. No individuality, which is what the scary part of them was.

I am not a practicing member of a social networking site and do not maintain a Facebook or MySpace page (I do maintain a blog, however). Observing my high school-age daughter and her college-age sister integrate these networking sites into their lives is a sharp contrast to my own experiences. Information flows heavy and fast through these sites. It is borg-like.

For instance, when my older daughter came home for the summer and appeared to have snagged a job, she immediately posted something to her social networking site, saying something like “I am now selling X.” It seemed almost instantaneous that her network of friends identified the company, had experience with it, and warned her off working for them. I don’t need convincing of the power of social networks, but the integration of the network into what seemed almost like real-time decision-making is incredible to me.

Indeed, the daily (hourly?) updating of personal information on these sites, about oneself and others in one’s community, and the volume of text messaging, creates a crude form of shared consciousness. The collective impulse of today’s high schoolers and college students is showing up in many ways, from the party bus for proms (instead of the limousine) to a redefinition of romance. The collective is in, and individualism (not necessarily individuality) seems out.

When will we have implantable transceivers in our heads so we can hear each other’s thoughts?

No comments:

Blog Directory - Blogged The Steiger Counter at Blogged