American Culture

The naked tail: how online social networks are destroying offline social conventions

Do you really want him back in your life?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 – with the right keywords – 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?

12 replies »

  1. Excellent.

    …but we are our memories. 🙂 You may want and choose to forget (great) but you can always count on someone else remembering…:)

    There is honour associated with memories but that is usually formalised, ritualised, established practice often found in national life, in the military etc or in ancestor worship.

    …as for being ‘stalked’ by those people from yesteryear. I doubt it is that prevalent. To have contact with someone one lost contact with because of decisions made that were beyond your own control can be wonderful.

    Last year the web brought me contact from childhood friends in S.A. but apart from the odd email there is no contact now. We just ran out of things to say once we had caught up and they understood why I had been “wrenched” from their lives to quote the friends concerned. Lovely to catch up and have a few questions answered on both sides but life carries on…

    You may not have an emotional connection with people who communicate through the web but I know plenty of people who do, including family members.

    Until fairly recently the culture of Britain was, in the main, distrustful of web social networking and it was a big no no even to consider dating someone, or meeting up with an individual. I probably fell into that category big time (for reasons of security, safety etc). I am still conservative and cautious in my approach.

    …but I am constantly amazed how many people now talk about meeting partners, making friends etc through the web.

    Professionals being the biggest networkers of all…why?

  2. Back in the early days of the Net many rosy-hued hosannas were sung over the virtual community. It was to usher in a new era of community consciousness, communal values, community this, community that – really, you could barely say hello without working in some utopian pronouncement about community.

    Of course, what was left out was that communities have their downsides. Salem, Mass., during the witch-hunts, was an archetypally American community of the first order. The community I grew up in was overrun with idiots and bullies and racists and sexists and people who were fated to learn about the inside of prison life.

    We rarely look as critically as some words as we should. Community, social, network – none of these are inherently happy words when you get down the reality of things.

  3. … try the phrase “internet tribes”…

    Some tribes get on better with other tribes.

    Social can be happy. Community can be good. Network can be good. All can be subverted. All can be corrupted. All can be evil.

  4. What scares and excites me is that these electonic social networks are actually living things. Sam and I have been talking about this sort of thing for years. Think about the Salem Witch Trials times a few million. Think of what could happen with that sort of social momentum. Then think about what would happen when you have two diametrically opposed social networks. How do you control that? And what do you do when it spills off infospace and into realspace (assuming, of course, there’s any real separation to begin with)?

    Right now, networks are fairly minor. Facebook and myspace are fairly disorganized. But people are learning how to change that. Advertising agencies, hate groups, terrorist groups. Look at the porn industry. Maybe even 2nd Life. All of these will, eventually, take on a life of their own, independent of individuals. And then we’ll have some serious fun.

    I guess it won’t ALL be bad. Look at the music industry. There’s already a war going on right now between a social network and “realworld” companies, right?

  5. Elain, it’s funny that you used the word Tribe. I’ve been doodling around with a book about artificial life for about 5 years now with Sam and the idea of Tribes came up very early on. 🙂

  6. I’m glad that I was only able to record my more maudlin teenaged angst in Big Chief notebooks back in the day. At least I could burn them, as well as outgrow the usual social faux pas of early adulthood. The internet was only a glimmer in a few peoples’ eyes back then, and I’m grateful for that.

    Today’s kids and young adults don’t have the option of ceremonially burning the paper journals of their youth. Their idealistic and awkward probings into growing up will be around to embarrass them forever- or until the last server crashes. This is one time where I’m glad I’m a bit older, and the Internet didn’t exist.

  7. I think the “forces” acting to reinforce this sense of tribe, of “us” vs “them”, is the nature of the software.

    Back when email was a closed loop (AOL clients could only email other AOL clients, same for other networks) it created real barriers to entry – exclusive tribes. When the first interoperable systems came available it levelled everything out and made the Internet truly flat.

    Now we’re going back to those closed loops – if MySpace and Facebook and SecondLife and all the rest could inter-communicate then there is less scope for tribe-like behaviour. More importantly, if “everyone” can “see” then the sociopaths go back into hiding.

  8. Lou,

    can you elaborate on your theory of the beard for all us slow old men please? Not sure I understand you there.

    Mr. Hawk,
    if everyone “seeing” makes the “sociopaths go into hiding,” then I guess everyone commenting anonymously in this blog-forum must be sociopathic in some way, right?

  9. Ooh, dear Mr Ghost, don’t go there. We had a huge flaming ning-nong a few weeks ago about precisely that point. I think the general consensus was, “Yes.”