You guys all suck

I was reading a bit on ReadWriteWeb today called Real People Don’t Have Time For Social Media, and it got me thinking about my attitude to the subject. I agree with the headline, but not for the same reason — it’s not that I lack the physical time, it’s just that, conceptually, I don’t have time for it.

Online social networking isn’t really social, it’s just sitting on your own in front of a computer.

I have a friend who spends all her free time in online web-cam chatrooms. To me, that’s not social, it’s the exact opposite — it’s social avoidance; it allows her to feel like she’s being sociable, when in reality she isn’t doing any of the things that define social interaction — she isn’t really meeting people, she isn’t going places or doing anything, and she isn’t taking any risks. To my mind, risk-taking is a defining factor in social interaction — it’s precisely because human relationships are risky that they’re so valuable.

Whenever we open ourselves up to someone, we’re taking a risk. When we state an opinion, or disagree with someone else’s, or admit to a weakness, or express an emotion, we’re taking a risk that the people around us may reject us for that expression. But when we do that online we’re not taking any risks at all, because we never leave our comfort zone. It’s like Road Rage.

Having said that, I’ve lost friends because of the way I behaved in an online social media space. Well, I say I lost friends — what I mean is, I lost people who I thought were friends, but in reality weren’t my friends at all — they were just casual acquaintances, who I’d only actually met in real life a couple of times, and with whom the majority of our interactions had been online.

So I didn’t really know these people, I only saw a thin veneer of them — the part that survives mediation into online dialog. Talk is cheap, and online talk is the cheapest; people simply behave differently online, and getting to know someone that way is limited by that bias.

Another time, I went through a brief phase of having a private blog — that is, a blog where only invited people could read the posts, using a granular system of permission tags to denote who could see what. This allowed me to post as personally as I wanted without having to worry about the world at large reading what I said (and avoiding the earlier issue!).

But it still didn’t work for me, because there’s always a limit. No authentication system is 100% secure, especially not one built for a blogging system, so I knew that there had to be a ceiling of frankness — some stuff I can just never talk about online, because I can’t take the risk of people I don’t know (or people I do know, but don’t care to know) reading about it. And even when it was working as intended (ie. providing the catharsis I’d hoped it would) it still didn’t make me feel more connected; if anything, it made me feel less connected, because here I was using an entirely impersonal system to express some of my most personal thoughts.

And that’s when I realised that I was touching on a small tip of a much larger iceberg, that it simply isn’t safe to broadcast your private life online; you just don’t know who’s reading. And thats not paranoia, it’s genuine fear of possible consequences arrived at through bitter experience.

So I withdrew, and now I don’t participate in any form of social networking. I still have a flickr account, but I only add as contacts people I already know well and consider true friends. And I don’t use it as a means of keeping in touch with those people, I use it to show them photographs.

If I’m friends with someone, that means something; it means I want to make an effort to keep in touch with them personally. For people in my physical area that means spending time with them; for friends overseas it means IM, phone calls and email, as a poor (but not entirely unsatisfying) proxy to actually spending time with them. And my attitude to people who want to be my friend is the same — if you want to be my friend, be my friend, and make an effort to keep in touch with me personally. Don’t Twitter to say “hi” or send me some stupid animated thumbs-up on Facebook … contact me personally and say hello.

I guess what bugs me is that social media fosters the dilution of real friendship to the same level as casual acquaintances. Using social media allows you to keep in touch with people in an ambient way, without ever making any real effort, or taking any risks. Well I’m sorry, but that is not friendship to me. Just because you add me as a Hi5 contact doesnt mean you like me; and just because I add you back doesn’t mean I like you either. It’s just automaton behavior, motivated more by fear than friendship, and I want no part of it.

So when I read terms like InfoCloud and Data Shadow I just want to scream. I don’t want the world at large to know everything about me; I don’t want even my closest friends to be able to find me anywhere via my cellphone’s carrier signal. And I certainly don’t want the internet to provide enough data that someone who’s never met me can make anything approaching a true assessment about what kind of person I am.

If you want to know me, you’re just gonna have to take the time to get to know me.

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  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ mmj

    I disagree with your argument that spending time in online web-cam chat rooms is not social. It is.

    It may be different to some of the social interactions we have or have had in our lives, but these are people who have found new types of social interactions in their lives, each with their strengths and drawbacks. For example, on strength would be the ability to hang out with people who are too far away to visit. One drawback would be the lack of face to face (in-person) contact.

    I do have friends that I have not met in person, and I have friends that I made online and subsequently met in person (as have you). It is not as if the friendship only started when I met them in person; it was always there. I had just interacted with them differently before.

    Different people can have different attitudes to social media; it sounds like you take a hands-off approach, not getting too involved with people. Others have quite close relationships with people – relationships that would certainly be subject to the same social rules as other types of social interaction. For instance, if you allow yourself to have close friends online, then you can feel like you are part of a community or you have a real connection, and thus you won’t want to destroy that feeling so you will follow the social rules. You are only anonymous if you choose not to be involved in other people’s lives in the same way as you might if you meet them in real life.

  • http://autisticcuckoo.net/ AutisticCuckoo

    I agree with you, James (sorry Tom). Yes, it’s possible to make real friends this way, but it’s mostly acquaintances (not that there’s anything wrong with that, you just shouldn’t confuse it with friendship).

    Your observations about taking risks is spot on, and I believe it is one of the main attractions for many people.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Well I’ve been brooding a lot lately on the whole nature of friendships – what does it mean to call someone your friend, or you theirs; how do you know who your real friends are; can you make judgements by comparing how you treat a person with how they treat you back.

    And the only good answers I could come up with were irrational. There is no rational way to answer questions like that, you just have to use gut feeling / instinct / intuition to work it out; do what feels right.

    And to do that you have to spend time with people in the flesh; get a sense of how you feel when they’re around, how their mere animal presence affects you.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com ShayneTilley

    To me James, I like the idea of social networking, it helps bring like minded people together from all over the world. I can’t think of any other method that achieves this so easily. It helps break down so barriers, and I think, in the long run, will help create a society of greater acceptance and tolerance.

    But on the flip side you’ve got to have balance. If you’re whole life is based on web social networking then you’re missing out on so many levels of social interaction.

    To put it in perspective. There would be no level of social networking that would have normally brought us together as friends. But having the opportunity to work with you at SitePoint, has given me that alternate interaction the the web could never provide. And whilst we disagree on just about everything, I’d proudly call you a friend…

    So if I strike up a friendship with people who have crossed my path via social networking, the sport I play, the place I work, the pub I choose to drink at, it makes absolutely no difference. It’s how you honor the friendship that’s important.

    And trust James, trust something that’s built over time, the channel doesn’t matter, and yes, people have burnt you, and probably will again. But just one TRUE friend discovered, over time, is worth so much more than 1,000 failures.

  • http://www.caseyburk.com Wolf_22

    People often declare these times as the information age, and while I would agree with that, I would also like to say that the “gray age” is amongst us as well. Using the above mentioned mediums to approach people now is just as kosher as an actual conversation with someone standing in front of you. Being a geek is now cool, driving a ’76 Chevette now has allure within certain circles and eating sushi or drinking an iced mocha for some is as good as maintaining the economical sense one might attain from getting food at a local food market. What I mean is that no matter what problem surfaces, there is always some sort of alternative viewpoint or perspective which sees disadvantage as advantage. It occurs across the board in all facets of life.

    From my personal standpoint, however, I agree with James. No online application or website will EVER come close to what one might be able to gain from an actual interaction with someone. Like “mmj” said about bridging gaps; it holds true. In spite of this, though, I still think that boredom and laziness stem from the online interaction solution – web cam chat room or not…

    I believe that the internet is the Cancer of relationships is misused.

  • http://www.caseyburk.com Wolf_22

    …Sorry… I meant to type “if” misused…

  • http://www.e-centricity.net amidude

    Well dang dude…according to your articles so far “I’m fat” and “I suck”…so why would I want to get to know you? :-P

  • Ned Collyer

    thesite2remember: I recon your color scheme, font size, design, letter spacing etc need a lot of attention tbh.

    what we really need is antisocial networking.

    You can’t invite friends or family.
    You just sit on a web page, and research your world of warcraft armour upgrades.

  • the.peregrine

    I agree with you, James, and I think this is an important realization that we all arrive at eventually. People like social networking because it creates the illusion of friendship with very little of the responsibility or accountability required of real friends.

    … which is fine, but people should not be too disappointed or surprised when those friends dissolve into the ephemera from which they came.

  • cob

    Great read. Couldn’t more.

    As a father with young children I desperately hope they do not lose touch with the reality a relationship via broadband will never replace the real thing.

    The problem is, as mentioned many times above, social networking is just too easy.

  • http://www.caseyburk.com Wolf_22

    Interesting analogy, btw (~ road rage). It’s exactly like that…

  • http://www.whoisak.com ashleyk

    James, i thought i was the only one (and from the majority of posts, we are the minority.)

    I call these people i’ve met once or twice “friends” when i accept that facebook invite. But I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. I’m not saying there aren’t people who can’t have real relationships and stay connect through places like facebook, i’m just not one of them, i find it an empty experience.

  • http://www.onewomansvoice.org Laine

    I agree to a point. I met my fiance on a blogging site and we’ve been together for three years now. Since I was in Cali and he in England at the time we met, I doubt we would have met any other way.

    Social Networking has enabled me to meet a lot of people from all over the world who I find interesting, but I wouldn’t call most of them friends. I don’t think it’s stupid to connect with people this way, but I think it’s important to expend more effort on keeping your real friendships going.

    People who have hundreds of friends on sites like FaceBook make me laugh. It’s like a popularity contest to see who can have the most ‘friends’.

    Personally, I’d rather hang out with my real offline friends. After all, most of them really know me, and like me anyway!

  • bc

    I thought the same as you for a while. But now I dont agree with you, at least not 100%. I use social networking and then still pick up the phone to talk to people. I go to meetings online and in person. The format that I use to socialize and network my business online or in person dont have to be independant of each other.

    As far as exposing my views online, I use the same filter that I would use in any group setting, so I wont regret any comments later. The filter doesnt always work perfectly, but that is not specific to the delivery format.

    That being said, it makes no sense to rely soley upon one or the other method for networking. Some people do hide behind a screen name. Personaly I am not afraid of transparency and being on the net. :)

  • http://johns-jokes.com John_Betong

    Reminds me of a Billy Connolly quotation

    Billy calls the internet ‘The Great Anorak in the Sky’.

    ‘You know why those people are on the internet’? he asks. ‘Because you wouldn’t speak to them in the pub, that’s why!’

    Billy has sent one email in his whole life, to Eric Idle. He knows there’s a reply for him somewhere out there in the electronic cosmos, but he’s b******d if he can remember how to retrieve it”.

  • http://www.digitalgreenlight.com busy

    I think this article missed the mark. Basically, you think Social Media is kind of lame. Personally, I agree to the point that I don’t have much use for it most of the time, but I don’t think much of a deeper statement can be made than that.

    This article reminds me of the people that don’t like modern music, but instead of just saying they don’t like it they feel obligated to try and convince people that it’s not “real” music because of how it’s made.

  • http://cr4ft.net/ brandaggio

    Friends are the people who you can count on one hand, two if you are extremely fortunate and blessed.

    Any list or page that says otherwise is just plain fiction, no matter what delusions the page owner/creator/author may be under.

  • Justen

    I share your distaste for social networking but I don’t think interacting with people over any communication media is somehow less valid or more emotionally safe. You might as well stop writing letters and talking on the phone too. It’s just another way to interact with friends, and I doubt if online acquaintances are any more or less casual or less likely to become true friends than real life ones, barring physical seperation; still more than a few people from before the age of the internet built long-lasting and highly valued relationships with pen pals on the other side of the country or even the world.
    I suppose that’s what social networking is, it’s like digital pen pals.

  • nonconformist

    why do you give a shit if someone youdon’t know reads what you post? To me that’s as futile an act as being a part of one of these online social networking sites.This article is probably the biggest waste of time i have ever encountered. stop being a loser