For too long I have shunned social networks, affording them the same criticism as pyramid selling, or network marketing as it was once called. A process that played on the weak, requiring them to turn their friends into business partners, only to lose them over an invisible profit line. As somewhat of a traditionalist, I have always been of the opinion that great riches are born only of hard graft, and that real friends are nurtured and trusted with old fashioned methods of communication, i.e. the telephone. It’s no surprise I never joined Facebook.
Having attempted to watch the film The Social Network on a flight recently, (a fuzzy 4 inch screen and oversized headphones are hardly conducive to the cinematic experience) I learned how from a small acorn, Facebook has grown into a social tornado, sucking up everybody and everything in it’s path (500 millions users). For me it’s secret ingredient is the relationship status toggle. The movie highlighted the moment when this feature found it’s place on The Facebook page, and the rest is history. It plays on the basic human emotion of hope. Knowing where one stands, or momentarily entertaining the fantasy of relations with a stranger. It’s an aspirational tease, which some choose to exploit, whatever their present relationship status.
I have gleaned from talking (yes, talking) to addicts of this medium, that it’s hedonism that fundamentally drives the machine. Combine that with a large helping of voyeurism, and you have two killer human instincts fueling the biggest virtual phenomenon the world has ever known. Whereas hedonism and voyeurism are considered socially unacceptable in the real world, online they have license to flourish, and it’s the exploitation of this that I find most fascinating. Still won’t be signing up though.
Now of course, it’s not used in this way by everybody, and that is another reason for it’s survival. Many people use it innocently, sharing photos, thoughts and memories between family members and close friends. But amongst this set, are an increasing number of people who use it as a testing ground for a second life, and it’s precisely this that smacks of sinister. As the network grows, so does the thirst for information, with people constantly drawing mental comparisons between their friend’s lives, and their own.
The process of learning, whether social or academic must take time. Time to locate, digest and memorize the facts. The social network does away with this, and replaces it with a never ending stream of visual stimulants, for short term use only, though archived in vast invisible servers. It’s the reliance on these visuals that in my view, undermines the human condition.
The most terrifying aspect of the social network is it’s ability to lull the user into a false sense of satisfaction by simulating relationships. It is actually the guilty party in the encouragement of isolation. Accessing the thread to someone else’s life, for many, removes the onus to actually visit, call and talk. A thumbs up ‘likes this’ by way of a mouse click is enough to satisfy the criteria of affirmation. Every minute, increasing numbers of people are perusing one dimensional data on lives whose narrative is engineered towards a smokescreen of happiness. Is anyone on this planet having a bad day? No, just me then!
And that is where I draw my conclusion. The social network encourages people’s subconscious to collate experiences that only benefit the medium in a positive light, score them virtual friends, and raise their social status. Holidays, meals, celebrations are increasingly captured through the lens of a camera, and not fully enjoyed by the naked eye. Often, it’s only the good times that get posted, and with memories only being recorded digitally, people are documenting their existence for promotional purposes, and for the benefit of hundreds of ‘friends’ they may have never even met.
Whilst manageable in it’s present form, an increasing number of real relationships are being compromised by this pursuit of virtual happiness. With more of us living our lives by proxy, soon, nobody will be going out at all! I’m all for accentuating the positive, but more and more of us are living alone, shunning the family and working too hard. This lifestyle is only set to snowball if we allow technology to replace personality. Couples are now slaves to their smart phones and laptops, and have begun to lead separate lives, even whilst sharing a bed.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be hugged by a human, than be poked with a mouse.