Tuesday, October 9, 2007

How do I know you?

Walking along the beach a few years ago, I passed a college-age couple and overhead a bit of their conversation. "Wow," she was saying, "It didn't say on your profile that you like Foosball!" The first thought that came to my mind was "Why do two people who live in college dorms need to use a dating site?"

I spend a lot of time thinking about social networks, and what has happened to our communities. For great coverage of that topic, read Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, but for people who don't have time to read 1000 pages, the bottom line is that over the last few decades, people in advanced countries have become less social. We go out less, participate in community and religious groups less, invite friends less, vote less, have dinner with our own families less.

But people feel the loss. People need people.

So to what extent can we replace our physical social networks with virtual social networks? Screen time has moved to the computer, meaning interactive screen time rather than passive screen time. That means real potential for relationship and community building online.

But I can't help feeling that it's just a tad empty. My kids get excited when they get a new fish in their Facebook aquarium, or when someone from the family "friends" them. My daughter is at the age where it builds her confidence to see on the screen her list of "friends". But no matter how personalized the gifts, pumpkins, or pokes get on Facebook, they never actually feel personal.

On my birthday, "friends" wrote on my wall, but then, I realized, other than my cousin, none of the people who wrote me birthday greetings on my wall are people who I've met in person more than once. After the initial elation that "someone remembered" I wasn't emotionally touched that people wrote on my wall on my birthday. (No offense to any of you, it really was considerate of you.)

I don't blame online communication for this. I blame the hollowness of our lives. Our relationships have taken a back seat, and the online relationships that fill the gap are better than nothing. Most of us, as adults, have forgotten what it is to have dinner with a friend. And when we try, well, everyone is too busy. I wonder what they are busy with. I can't even get them to go exercise together, so I know that they aren't even exercising properly. They don't have time for themselves, so I don't feel offended that they don't have time for me.

And then comes along the convenience of having friends online. You can mass-send all of your holiday greetings in 10 minutes. You can have some kind of exchange with a dozen people in an hour, and still have time for TV or whatever it is they are all doing in the evening, so why waste your time with coffee with just one friend? You HAVE enough friends now. Or do you?

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