There is a spectre stalking the fringes of social networking; of Facebook, of MySpace, of LinkedIn. It will linger long after the romance of connecting with old friends is gone. It is the spectre of failed relationships, broken hearts, shattered friendships and angry words … unsaid.
When any relationship ends under dodgy circumstances there is an inherent contract which has stood humanity in good stead for hundreds of years; we won’t discuss it. We agree to go our separate ways and pretend we never met. It is a social convention.
All of that is coming undone.
Over the past few weeks I, an unwilling Facebook participant, have been assailed by joyful missives from people I thought I had done with. Other close friends have expressed similar consternation that the sociopaths they assume doomed to their past have turned up once more.
Even email was insufficient to break this norm. So great is the individual’s fear of emotional confrontation that it has taken until the coming of social networking and Web 2.0 to overcome our conditioning. And then what? Am I supposed to respond with a similarly brief, chirpy comment of my own?
Web 2.0 did not invent communication.
My mobile number is unchanged for almost a decade. My email address for almost as long. My parents still live in the same house. Anyone who knew me once-upon-a-long-ago has always been able to find me.
What the Internet has done, however, is dropped the sense of social respect we have for people with whom we communicate directly. By dissociating our communication it removes the emotional connection. Nowhere is that more evident than in the ugly and emotionally bereft comment-wars taking place in blogs and other networks.
Discretion is the better part of valour. Or, as Mark Twain might have put it, rather remain silent and let people think you’re a fool than blog and remove all doubt.
The convention which says, “I agree not to pursue you to the ends of the earth in exchange for your silence and respecting my absence,” is being discarded.
To hell with it.
Since the convention is down anyway I have taken the opportunity to describe, in lavish detail, exactly why I’m angry and where I stand. Peculiarly enough, in one or two cases, it has resulted in long-withheld admissions of contrition and despair at ever being forgiven. I am not a complete hell-hound and such redemption, honestly sought, is compassionately given.
In the Long Tail, Chris Anderson theorised that the Internet’s great gift is that it has allowed minor interests to become major businesses. I think that the more lasting legacy is going to be that of the Naked Tail.
The minutiae of our lives are no longer our own, to be remembered amongst friends who have their own youths to look back on, commiserate, share solace and rejoice. That is no longer exclusively within our own remit. Every detail of our lives, no matter how trivial, is now public and â€“ with the right keywords â€“ available by Google.
The greatest gift that genetics has given us is memory; that it fades. Who wants to keep in mind the pain of your first lost love? The death of a child thirty years ago? That drunken university party where you paraded across campus wearing nothing but a throw-rug and a slobbery-smile? Do you want some 17-year-old research student stopping by your office and asking you why the 20-year-old anti-establishment tirades you blogged about have given way to a satisfied middle-aged conformism?
We need to remember how young the Internet is.
How it was started by youthful, optimistic teens back in 1994. Those teens are now 15 years older. They, like me, are in their thirties. Old enough to have a misspent youth to look back-upon, alive with poignant memories. Old enough to have relationships that ended badly. Old enough to have experiences that reflect poorly both on themselves and others.
The current iteration of the Internet, through social networking, reflects that sense of nostalgia as they seek out the people they have lost contact with. But, as with everything on the Internet, that connection lets everyone in. Not just lost friends.
What shall we see in another 15 years? Websites given over to prostate and breast exams? Easy weight-loss coaching? Networks about how to put a child through college? The terminal boredom of middle-age? The vacuous reflection on what might have been?
Do you want this? Do you want to be reminded? Do you want to remain permanently connected to everything? Not just the good and wonderful, but also the bad and ugly?
Shouldn’t we give the Internet the gift of forgetting as we do for our souls?