Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Social Networking

If you've seen the timestamp you can probably guess that there's a greater than fifty percent chance this will deteriorate into mindless ramblings. Diet Dr Pepper was a great choice at the time, but even though I'd love to claim otherwise, it seems caffeine still works as well on me as it always has.

As an aside, I find it amusing that I feel a need to justify and downplay my reasons for posting here. I clearly don't want anyone thinking that I actually enjoy it. Anyway, getting on with it...

With employment looming (just realized I haven't posted since I accepted a job, so if you didn't know, that happened) I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I spend my time, mainly because it will all be changing drastically in the very near future. Some of the things I spend my time on are solid, useful things. Homework. Checking my blood sugar. Eating. Sleeping. All good things. Other activities are productive or meaningful in different ways. Prayer. Spending time with friends. One time-sink that I still haven't quite wrapped my head around though is the internet.

I'd be lying if I said I spent less than six or seven hours a day on the internet. It might be more, I've never really taken the time to document it. Granted, if I'm on my computer, I'm on the internet, and as a computer scientist that happens to be almost all the time. Large chunks of time are spent on homework (well, the chunks SEEM large), but the lions share tends to be spent checking email, facebook, twitter, and any number of other online communities that I'm a part of.

In thinking about how social networking affects my relationships (I typed, then deleted, "real relationships" there, but I'm not entirely sure that there's a distinction... which is sortof my point.) I found myself wondering why it is that people, including myself, spend so much time tending to these digital representations of ourselves. The conclusions I've come to aren't exactly novel, and I'm certainly not the first person to think about this, but it's fascinating to me nonetheless.

First of all, we spend time on social networking because in so many situations, our digital, online presence is the only presence we've got or we can use it to make us seem better than we are. Applying for jobs, schools, or anything else? Better make sure your facebook profile, your linkedin profile, and your twitter feed are in order. Polish your rough edges so you can edge out that guy who has a picture of himself with a beer at a New Year's Day party.We spend time on these things because it's beneficial and profitable for us to do so.

Second, and this might be the biggest reason, we spend time on social networks because we're conceited. You know as well as I do the shot of endorphins that come with that "like" or comment you got on that last status update. I regularly find myself wondering, "How many people read that tweet and found it really deep and impactful."

Social networking strips away all of the interesting things about interaction and replaces them with carbon-copied, pre-defined actions. Like that status? Click "like." Like that tweet? Click "retweet."

The same is true of controlling who sees the things we put online. In the real world, we're careful about who we share things with because there's no other way to do it. You say something, and the people within earshot hear you. They get one chance to hear it because after that the sound waves have dissipated and they're left with silence. Online, the opposite is true. We technically have the ability to control who hears us, but it's complicated and time-consuming (by design, I might add...) to be perfectly efficient communicators online, only saying things to the people we mean to say them to.

Social networking discretizes our actual social lives, not only by literally storing it as zeros and ones on a server farm somewhere in silicon valley, but also by forcing us to enumerate individually who we do and don't want to hear or see what we're sharing.

So what's the solution? I don't know. Besides being terrible, social networking and the internet are awesome. They allow communication over distances that would otherwise be unimaginable. I don't plan to shut off my accounts, but I do plan to try to avoid condensing and simplifying my interactions unnecessarily if I can.

And yes, I fully realize the humor in the fact that in order to share this, I've posted it on facebook and twitter.