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Knowing everything about everybody

September 12, 2008

There was an interesting story in the NY Times Magazine recently (soory, exactly what week is beyond me … I have shopping bags full of Sunday NY Times lying around my house at all times, delivered by my parents … I just select one randomly).  Anyway, this story was all about social networking on the web and it had quite a refreshing take on the entire business.  As I’m sure you’re aware, most folks talk about social networking like it’s some kind of plague that keeps people from meeting other actual “real people”, while everyone hides in their room.  This article has a different argument … it suggests that everyone has been locked in their houses for some time before this particular revolution watching TV, playing video games, or one of the many other things that really do require zero social interaction.  Combine this with living in the suburbs of places designed so that people don’t go outside anyway without getting in their car, and you’ve got some serious alienation happening since about the 1950s.  (I may be adding my own ideas to this … who knows?)  The article definitely does make the point, however, that hanging out on sites like Facebook and Twitter may be like having virtual firends (and kind of weird that way), but it also similar to the old fashioned idea of living in a small town (in certain ways).  Those of you who have lived in a small town have experienced the idea of everyone knowing everything that you do (perhaps the very reason that you have left that town), and having people say, “I see that you moved some of your garden gnomes around there, Dave”.  Well, Facebook or Twitter provides for a similar amount of knowledge of the lives of others, even if they might not even live anywhere near you.  I guess the thing that can really illustrate this is when you meet someone who you only (or mostly) know from social networks. You have that strange knowledge of details of their lives that comes from living in a small community without actually being anywhere close. You might say “not feeling so well last week, huh? … sounds like that was a rough two days”  A weird state of affairs to be sure, talking to someone you only know from the web, and knowing more about their daily life than someone who lives next door.  (I definitely know far more about people who live 1000s of miles away than I do about my neighbours … heck, I have no idea what’s going on over there … except the TV seems to be on most of the time).  My question is, though, how different is it to know what is going on in someone’s life by reading brief snippets of info on the web, as opposed to driving by their house and peering into their yard (or hearing about things while hanging around at the local diner)?  And, even more significant … how much worse could it be socially than the last fifty years or so, when people lined up on the couch and stared at their televisions all evening? That is true alienation.

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