Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cyborg Planet, Part 2: Friendships in Cyberspace

The late, great media ecologist Neil Postman urged people to pause before adopting any new technology and to ponder all the possible consequences, good and bad, that the technology brings with it.

This precept, that all technology has unintended consequences, should be known as "Postman's Law." Postman's favorite example of this was television. Television, he pointed out, favors pictures over text. Since we respond to images viscerally, we don't evaluate the information television presents with the same critical consideration that we would give to written information. Translation? Television has made us dumber.

I've been thinking of Postman lately, as I pondered the phenomenom of internet friendships. An internet friend, or "cyberpal" is someone with whom you have formed a personal bond through the exchange of ideas and discussion of mutual interests via internet-based communication (i.e., e-mail & blogs). That is to say, interaction is almost exclusively computer-mediated. The two parties involved rarely (if at all) meet face to face.

Although such relationships have been around since the creation of the internet in the late sixties, it has in recent years become a mass phenomenom through the popularity of such websites as "My Space" and the ever-burgeoning blogsphere. As "cyberpaling" continues to grow, it is a good opportunity ponder the implications of Postman's law.

The difficulty of making friends after the end of one's schooldays is a well-known problem. In the pre-television days, people often spent their free time at social clubs and gatherings were they could make friends with people of similar interests. In America, mass media & suburbization has helped to erode that once vast network of communal activities (see Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone).

This poverty of friendships coupled with the rise of internet helped bring about the Cyberpal Phenomenom.

The impulse to connect with other people has been a powerful spur in internet use. But (and here the voice of Postman intrudes) doesn't this form of interaction lack the tactile appeal of face to face interaction? Do we not lose the vast, wordless communication that is conveyed by gesture and expression? The pitch of voice? The feeling of hand touching cheek?

The short answer is yes, which is why cyberpaling should never be a substitute for real time, physical interaction. However, before we sentimentalize such encounters, we would do well to remember that much of what we share in public meetings tends to be trivial, small talk. It is the meeting which is the message. Looking back on some of my own friendships, it amazes me how little of real consequence I've shared with other people during the occasional hurried lunch meeting or weekend outing.

By comparision, sharing thoughts over the internet is preceded by private time where the writer has the opportunity to give more care to the content and form of his or her thoughts. Because of this, i suspect some bloggers have shared more with their online readers in terms of true feelings, fears, and hopes than they have with people they see on a regular basis.

One form or another of friendship should not predominate. As we continue to give new shape to human interaction in the 21st century, we should avoid the extreme of either/or but seek the best of both worlds.


Nancy said...

I was just having that conversation last night with my houseguest, a friend that I met through blogging. My little blogging circle of friends began with a few people who knew each other in real life and then began to expand. We were talking about how the internet has enhanced our social lives and friendships. The intimacy of email exchanges has made me feel even closer to the "real life" friends, and has also really expedited the development of online relationships. It's true what you're saying about the missing pieces of face to face interaction - the body language and eye contact and that sort of thing. But those can also be barriers - before I tell you or ask you something personal or challenging or truly interesting, I'm working hard to guage your mood and predict what your reaction will be. Whereas in print, I can't worry about that. If you're not in the mood for the topic, you can just read it later. Anyway, great post. I came here from Lina's blog.

Khalidah said...

I love what you wrote here .. and I agree with Nancy on the points that she listed ..

Blogging did enhance my social relations with fellow bloggers whether online or in real ... I share great relationships with bloggers and I am so happy that after my friends of a past era walked their own ways .. that I have these great people to start out again and have friends one more time :)

Thank you for linking :)

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