According to a feature in a recent BusinessWeek the new crop of teenagers (which they have coined—get a bucket beside you—“generation @”) engage in as much social activity online as they do off, seeing the two states as seamless continuations of each other. On sites like MySpace they establish coteries to discuss the minutia that preoccupies them and allow themselves to keep score on the vast extent of their social networks. This quantifying of sociality is probably a bad thing, but that isn’t anything new—the computer just makes it easier to track how many friends you have and maybe its distancing effects have the paradoxical effect of allowing for deeper friendships amidst the ocean of nominal friends—the quasi-anonymity allowing for more confidential disclosures, the Internet’s niches allowing for much more sepcific and deeper shared interests.
What’s troubling about relocating your group of friends to MySpace is that it allows it to be easily infilitrated by predators. Not sexual predators, but advertisers, who seek to sponsor networks and even specific groups, and worse, what BusinessWeek calls “influencers,” soulless creatures who walk among us as if alive, pretending to be like us while being paid to promote a variety of goods the manufacturers hope will turn out to be “cool.” Could it be that people don’t mind these living ads impersonating human beings in their company? Do they laugh it off the way older generations laugh off TV commercials and promotional stunts? Is it really a good thing to have a tolerance for this kind of dehumanization?
Also, brands have already succeeded in linking themselves with cultural legitimacy, making their imprimateur necessary before a good or service will truly be taken seriously. Some already inspire cult like devotion, providing a conduit through which people can unite, but only and always with shopping as their primary shared goal. With friend groups online, it’s that much more likely they will seek legitimacy in brands to validate the very basis of their friendships rather than in the quality of experience they actually have with the other people—these friends brought to you by Pepsi, by Apple.