Clive Thompson has written a very interesting piece for the NYT magazine about how social networking has changed people’s relationships to friends and acquaintances: I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this article – Thompson actually makes the best case for micro-blogging services like Twitter that I’ve ever seen.
Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.
The article says that even with all this technology, people still can only really keep track of so many close friends – our “Dunbar number”. Social network users say that their relationships to those close friends have become deeper and richer as a result of these tools. And they’ve also greatly really increased the number of “weak ties” to loose acquaintances that they can call on from time to time.
The flip side of the coin is that most kids these days have no choice but to participate in social networks. They’re living in the equivalent of a small town, where everyone is talking about everyone else. If you don’t make a regular appearance, and try to express yourself, others will define you against your will.
“You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”
Of course, people often act far worse online than they would ever behave in person. We see that in email discussions and message boards. That additional degree of separation allows people to act without considering the consequences. And when those actions are broadcast for all to read, it can really be destructive. Just imagine if people behaved in person like they do on Facebook.