Antisocial networking

[7 July 2008]

By Rob Horning

I came across some notes I had made probably years ago about what struck me as the antisocial essence of computers. I think the notes were prompted by the first time I saw people in an office who were sitting 15 feet from one another communicating by instant message instead of talking. I thought then that putting computers on every worker’s desk reduces solidarity and encourages each person to seek their own distractions, their own entertainment. People become absorbed with their screens even when they aren’t working, and it becomes more difficult to distract them with the mere pleasantries that nurture social connections, that allow acquaintanceship to flourish. The personal computer reinforces a kind of extreme individualism by promoting the sense that you are the ruler of a virtual world and that every aspect of that world can and should be customized and personalized for your convenience. It is a realm that negates the need for cooperation, patience, conciliation, consideration—anything that requires a moment’s reflection or a temporary suspension of desire.

Social networking, despite its apparent goal of bringing people together, fortifies that private kingdom. It places friendship under the value system encouraged by computing, becoming a practice to indulge in only on one’s own term. It becomes measurable, and it is expected to dole out blasts of immediate gratification that may seem reciprocal on its face (I send a message, and then receive one back) but is better described as instrumental exchange—one clicks the right buttons to get the desired response, like solving a kind of puzzle, while the complexity of the human beings on the other side of these exchanges becomes muted if not nullified altogether. It certainly becomes irrelevant to the way a platform like Facebook mediates and manages social contact. There is a preordained shape for social contact to assume—a series of commands to make a game of Scrabble happen, an algorithm that suggests who you should try to befriend, a log to remind you of what significant things have happened so that you don’t have to bother to remember to ask or to share.

One of the most unsettling aspects of Facebook is those suggested friends; it’s as if the site aspires to replace the spontaneous accidents that foster friendship in real life with something mechanical and logical (and simultaneously contributing to the relegation and diminishing of social skills necessary for making friends offline). But there is not always a coherent logic to why we are friends with who we are friends with. Sometimes the sheer pointlessness of carrying on certain friendships is what makes them so salient—it is like art for art’s sake. These friendships feel the most authentic and perhaps bring out what we would recognize as our most authentic selves. But in providing tools to manage our sociability, social networks seem to aspire to control the concept, redefine it in such a way that it may be more thoroughly exploited commercially. (It may be axiomatic that anytime an activity becomes virtual—moved online—it becomes more commercialized.) The online tools supplant the social skills that were once part of our human heritage; it seems like a dangerous evolution in a world that requires some level of cooperation for our species to survive. Can online mass participation, each on their own terms, replace actual directed cooperation to accomplish tasks and negotiate necessary compromises? Or will we become disaggregated atoms, longing for a connection to a society but capable only of the ersatz online alternative, which requires too little commitment and demands none of the reciprocity that makes ties bind?

Social encounters are often awkward and vaguely dangerous; on Facebook, I’d imagine that they are rarely so. So it would probably be easier to handle a friend request from someone in your office than a face-to-face encounter with them by the microwave at lunchtime. So one of social networking’s boons is removing some of the uncertainty that comes with social contact and thereby mitigating social anxiety. But it does this by making that contact more or less antisocial—it makes it an on-demand phenomenon that is essentially one-sided for the friendship consumer. You log on when you feel like it, take in as much friendship as you feel like taking in, and log off when it no longer amuses you. You can ignore the contacts that aren’t important to you, or mollify them with cursory or perfunctory attentions that the site more or less automates. As a byproduct of all this convenience, actual friendship begins to feel more onerous, which accelerates the trend toward moving all of our friend maintenance online, where it is more easily managed. Better to send an email than talk on the phone; better to update a website than communicate to all the firends individually. Better to “poke” a friend than share anything substantive, etc. Sociality becomes akin to snacking. The moments upon which deeper friendships are built are not given the occasion to occur—soon nothing will be able to happen in a friendship that wouldn’t fit into a Twitter post.

But in some ways it’s unfair to pick on social networks; they are just highlighting tendencies inherent to the internet as a whole; the services are just the most obvious vectors for making human interaction obey the logic that manages computer networks. (Facebook is like a router for human relationships that have devolved into networks.) I think Jason Kottke is right about Facebook: it’s the new AOL—that is, it attempts to present its users with a scaled down, simplified, seemingly more mangaeable version of what the internet itself provides. Kottke writes: “As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.”

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