I would like to say that the quite frankly astonishing rise of social-networking tools clearly points to an unmet need in the ‘wired’ populace at large. We increasingly live in a fragmented society, where our friends and family are scattered across the globe. Many of use no longer, for economic, personal, or many other reasons, choose to live in the same place for our entire lives, where we could build up a local network of family and friends. And even if we do so, the demands of modern life and our cultural habits tend to erode (it seems) many opportunities for face-to-face gatherings over a long time period; such things now require real effort and are not a de facto part of everyday life.
So it seems that a way of assuaging the erosion of the human need for contact, and just as importantly, a context within which such contact can be meaningful, can be found through the social networking tools. These tools are not designed, and cannot really take the place of repeated face-to-face interactions, but what they DO provide is a way to ‘keep the door open’ to people who you might otherwise lose track of or only communicate with very rarely. By having, for example, a Facebook page, you put yourself in a position of taking moments out of your day to have a conscious connection with people who would otherwise likely not enter your thoughts that day. The immediacy and digital ‘nearness’ provided by the technologies allows for and creates a different kind of interaction than has heretofore been possible on the planet. On the one hand, these technologies constrict certain kinds of communication; but it opens up others at the same time, and allows a thread of connection that can later be followed up by a more present, face-to-face, or otherwise soul-ful type of communication.
This is something of the positive side of these tools, but they can also be used for pure ego-stroking, for bullying, for economic reductionism, etc. Such is the way of any tool. For me it’s always a question of how the tool is used, and I am convinced that humans have the power to make tools like this (and other technologies) work in a positive way for the benefit of themselves and the planet.
It’s true: there is no substitute for real face-time. I would simply point out that Facebook and such tools are NOT actually substituting for face-time. In fact, the reverse might be true: the immediacy and ubiquity of social networking tools may actually increase the potential for two or more people to get together IRL (in real life)–there must be a study on this somewhere… if not, any takers?
My feeling is that the use of such tools lessens both perceived and actual gaps between individuals, while also allowing individuals to discover more potential relationships that might otherwise be missed. Increasingly human beings are going to have to learn how to deal with the instant availability of essentially infinite data. In the pre-wired-era, the available data was restricted to your immediate sensory neighborhood, and you had no choice about this, notwithstanding the influence of books and letters. Now, we have a choice, and can access a whole variety of types and fields of information literally out of thin air. It opens up a whole different set of possibilities for human creativity and interaction….
But obviously I’m not yet giving a well-rounded picture. I should also point out that the way that these technologies lead human consciousness around may be problematic in a number of ways, and the identification and harmonizing of these regressive or sclerotic tendencies should be addressed up front. But to speak of these would require an even longer discussion — one including talk about the inner life of the soul.
Below: a diagram depicting connections between a single user’s Facebook friends.