Communication breakdown

[12 July 2006]

By Rob Horning

In my blind rush to hyperbole in the previous entry I probably didn’t put enough emphasis on technology’s capability to enhance and facilitate friendship. I don’t mean to imply that friendship mediated through technology is inherently inauthentic; it’s probably the opposite considering how it vastly expands the pool of like-minded people who are accessible to one another. (And, after all, many friendships in the real world are plenty inauthentic as it is without any assistance from the Internet.) It’s absolutely right, too, as Autumn pointed out in the previous post’s comments, that social networks don’t necessarily create snobs and narcissists, they just give them another stage to perform on. Certainly the majority of online social activity never reaches the threshold of the Sunday Styles section—it’s not orchestrated for the sake of fashionability, it’s just the playing out of ordinary routines of camaraderie. We all can use more of that, online or on the job or on the street or at cafes or wherever. That’s not what the writer in the Times seems to be doing though. It’s the boastful triumphalism and the grandstanding in the NYT piece that’s so disturbing—as if having friends was something you do to seem cool rather than something that is its own reward. What is important is the way you have friends, not who they are. It suggests how “cool” seeks to cannibalize everything and how using technological novelties to annex fields of behavior is one of its methods. As Nate, another commenter, points out, here is where modes of friendship are made to mimic modes of disenfranchisement—when “real” friendship requires not only the coolness aura from MySpace, etc., but also the authentication and verification that databanks on past online behavior and reputation management technology could provide, those who can’t afford to be online will be banished to a kind of outlaw realm, unqualified for polite society or good jobs.

My primary fear, though, is about the deleterious effects quantification can sometimes have on things, how priorities can get shifted by the analytical tools at our disposal. Of course, measuring tools are one small part of the potentiality communications technology brings to sociability. And not all of mediated sociability will be filtered through commercial culture and be harvested by advertisers and such for ad targeting. But the availability of statistical information can sometimes be irresistible, and it can change how we perceive things—it can bring a Moneyball effect to our social lives, where instead of trusting our instincts and our senses, we believe the numbers. I used to examine the information about the hits this blog received, but then that info started to paralyze me, making me question whom I should be trying to reach, what they might expect, how to boost my numbers, etc. Those numbers without question tell an accurate story about what (little) this blog accomplishes, but that’s not the only story and it wasn’t one that helped me. It wouldn’t help me by the same token to be able to evaluate friendships that way—I think I’m too insecure for that. But when my friend group shifts online, someone at some point will be able to market that data to me, I’m afraid, and in a moment of weakness I’ll find out more than I want to know.

In fact, communications technology may carry with it the danger of exacerbating neediness; it can potentially bring out the borderline personality in all of us—if a friend could have called, then why didn’t he? Why doesn’t he pick up when I call his cell phone? If she saw I was online, then why didn’t she IM me? Why is it taking her so long to reply to my last IM? Is she IMing with someone else right now? Is that person more important than me? If I have so much access to everyone, then why do I feel ignored? I admit, it takes special breed of paranoia to go down that avenue, but inciting insecurity has been a commercial strategy since the advent of advertising—ads are always quick to remind us of how bad our breath smells and how bad our hair looks and what a bad impression our suit gives off and so on. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility for the communications industry to want to induce that paranoia about our friends, for so many cents a minute, so many cents a text message. Not that we’ll ever have friends merely for the sake of Verizon, but could we, by virtue of hype pieces about new ways to have friends and on the strength of our own experiences of convenience that these new tools give us, be guided toward having relationships mainly on Verizon’s terms, on the terms of pervasive telecom surveillance and hypermediated communication? In the meantime, while I mull that over, I’ll keep paying my broadband bill.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/communication-breakdown/