Are online social networks a net gain for humanity?

I’ve been asked this question, with real urgency behind it, twice this week. The first time was a “Live at 5″ interview segment with KWTX TV here in Waco (Channel 10 for those of you following along). The context was the Ft. Hood massacre and a blog posting that praised the alleged shooter’s actions. (There’s been widespread notice of that blog post in the blogosphere and on mainstream media.) My answer in the interview was that the question about online social networks was really a question about civilization. Whenever people communicate or collaborate, the potential for good or ill is magnified. The Internet magnifies the magnification exponentially, yes, and the difference in degree may yield a difference in kind, but at bottom we’re still dealing with people and culture and communication. We invent these information and communication technologies because we are human. That’s where the analysis should start, or so it seems to me. But it’s still an urgent question and I have no ready answer beyond a firm conviction that more conversation is better than less conversation, more learning is better than less learning, and that freedom is worth what it costs. I am aware, however, that the price can be extraordinarily high, and I agree with Milton that there’s a difference between liberty and license, and I’d be lying if I said that I believe humanity is always and everywhere on the upward path.

Yet I remain optimistic, and strive for what Paul Ricoeur calls “second naivete,” the one that comes after the initial disillusionments, after the painful but necessary acquisition of robust skepticism and the habit of detached analysis. But that’s matter for another post.

Today the question appeared in a no less urgent but slightly different form in a very thoughtful comment on this post. The urgency here is that of a fellow parent, where the question literally comes home. I answered the commenter on the post, but I wanted to republish my comment here because the commenter inspired some fresh thoughts that I’d like to be in this space as well. The part I feel most deeply tonight surprised me, and it’s in boldface below. Some days the passing of time and the pain of separation intrude sharply, their edges keen.

“Is it a good thing that with these tools we expose so much more of ourselves to so many more folks? Who knows?”

The answer is “no one,” I guess–but there are some interesting guesses out there, including more than a few of mine littering the landscape.

Some folks believe we will be brought closer in ways that will resemble the intimate knowledge villagers had of each other (for better or for worse–those small towns can be social minefields) before the age of cities and suburbs. This is part of what McLuhan meant by the phrase “global village.” Others suspect that we’re going to see even more dramatic changes in how we conceptualize and experience all sorts of relationships. I tend to fall into this camp, as does my friend and colleague Michael Wesch at Kansas State (he’s an anthropologist who’s done some astonishing and wonderful work in this area–look for his presentations on YouTube). I think we may, if we’re patient and resourceful and discerning, approach the condition John Donne describes in Meditation 17, the “no man is an island” meditation, when he says that in Paradise we will be like books in a library “lying open to each other,” reading each other into being in a kind of infinite fellowship.

Though I’m painfully aware of the dangers and unintended consequences, I’m also optimistic about these changes, these possibilities. I’m optimistic in part because I’m a teacher and teachers are committed to optimism. But I’m also optimistic because we experience so little of each other in a lifetime. Even with loved ones, we have very little time and opportunity for deep communion. If there’s a way to transcend time and space and the busyness of each day and know each other in greater depth, breadth, or both, I’m willing to give that a try and see where it leads. Sometimes it leads to cool folks with cool cat avatars–and that’s not only fun but rewarding when the conversation ensues.

2 thoughts on “Are online social networks a net gain for humanity?

  1. I think that a new medium does not necessarily have a bearing on the quality of the message. Sometimes the medium becomes the message and that feels like a noise rather than a signal for me. I also have reservations about the always on backchannel and its impact on some kinds of conversations, on etiquette and attention.

    The quality of connection and the cost as a percentage of our capacity to engage as a human with any incoming data through our days, weeks, lives probably depends on what kind of filtering and listening we are doing what kinds of message we seek. Whether we can effect meaningful use or response to them as a discourse or action.

    I have been meeting a few artists in a gallery where we can work on site.
    I am thinking about whether the making can be made into a video stream and available online. But the day to day logistics of this makers’ space are about an old home, paint, weather, coffee, milk, textures, time, money, learning new kinds of drawing.
    Some of that I am trying to make into online words but I am not yet sure where the valuable listening and valuable action will happen.

    I agree that the ‘fun’ of finding like minds which are beyond the pattern of a face to face day gives a different sense of being more broadly anchored and aware. Which might be imagined but so be it. That like mindedness is findable feels useful to me.

  2. Gardner, your name came up in two places that caught my attention. The first was your comment on my post in the DIIA Blog about Leslie Jarmon being awarded the TUE grant to create a system-wide communications area in Second Life for the University of Texas at Austin. The second was a reference to your blog by Rob Bruce.

    Humanity was greatly enhanced by Leslie and her brilliant life. I am grateful for her friendship and will miss her desperately. It’s very comforting to know that I am not alone in acknowledging her impact, personally and professionally.

    DIIA is working with Linden Labs to (hopefully) create a memorial area where friends and colleagues can share how Leslie changed our lives for the better, regardless of how she touched us. She truly made the virtual real.

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