You guys all suck

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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.

James EdwardsJames Edwards
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James is a freelance web developer based in the UK, specialising in JavaScript application development and building accessible websites. With more than a decade's professional experience, he is a published author, a frequent blogger and speaker, and an outspoken advocate of standards-based development.

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