Friday, May 16, 2008

The Future of Social Networking



Here is a visual depiction of the much-vaunted social networking phenomenon: a phony Western town facade, a transparent attempt to simulate a real community.



If you have teenagers, or are close to teenagers, you've seen the progression: as young teens, they're enamoured with Neopets--at first with the cartoonish pets, the "locales," the games and buying and bidding (such good training for adult consumption!) and then later with the "social networking" aspects.

Once they've burned out on Neopets and their poor neopets are starving (luckily, neopets are not able to simply die from inattention from their distracted owners), then they move on to Gaia or an equivalent teen social networking site.

Here they learn that social networking is mostly about interacting with existing friends on a new forum; so in addition to email, IM'ing and talking on the phone, they can post goofy messages and so on to their friends at school.

By about 12 or 13 they're ready to enter the "bigtime" of Myspace and/or Facebook, and they quickly upload the usual panoply of "identity tags"--weird photos of themselves, their friends (again, virtually all are existing acquaintenances except for the ubiquitous "Tom"), lists of favorite songs, etc.--a continuation of the model of "identity defined by what I passively consume," as lists of mass-media corporate consumables (bands, music, etc.) define an individual or provide "tags" of their personality.

The "joy" on these later-teen sites, of course, revolves around a few "activities":

1. mindless one-line messages with current friends, "communication" which could just as easily been posted as an IM or email

2. competing with siblings/pals on who has the most ersatz "friends"

3. being "edgy" via posting racy photos, listing obscure bands, etc. and making personal page as cluttered and unreadable as possible

4. Playing private detective and searching for acquaintance's home pages or pursuing some other slightly illicit-feeling voyeurism, such as visiting the pages of deceased teenagers.

Adults who venture onto these networks make feeble stabs at either copying the teenagers (more lists of favorite bands, arrghh! Why no "lists of my favorite phenomenological philosophers"?) or joining one of the thousands of forums populated with zombies (people who joined and never showed up since) or a handful of folks who try to keep some thread or topic alive.

The conversation on these forums is very similar if not identical to blog comment threads-- people you don't know and don't care about posting comments which have little value other than the simulacrum of "dialog." I suppose some people have met their future mates or good buddies on these forums but I suspect the numbers are infinitesimal compared to the tens of millions of registered users.

Once the teens tire of the project of adding flashing bits and edgy slogans, etc. to their personal pages, and the "communication" with "friends" becomes tiresome (you might as well tell them in person tomorrow at school or IM them) then they drop out of these social networks as well, usually before they even start college.

The ersatz "Western town" has only so many attractions, and within a relatively short time the social networkers have dropped out or moved on to World of Warcraft or Second Life, similar iterations of the Potemkin Online Syndrome (POS) which engages them for some period of time (weeks, months or perhaps a few years at best) and then the whole project of simulated community and connection wears thin once again, for the dissatisfactory reality of simulacrums is all that remains after the distractions fray and the ennui and boredom set in.

Meanwhile, the marketers who spotted the fake town from afar were salivating at the rich prospects for bending young impressionable minds into consuming their products. Like a pack of ravenous canines, they gleefully poured into the "community." Imagine their dismay when they discover they have conquered an empty facade town, devoid of actual community and populated by either the ghosts of former "inhabitants" (their accounts still alive but the owner long gone) or zombies on their way to the next empty facade-town and next online simulacrum of the community all humans seek.

Thank you, Don E. ($13), for your outrageously sustained (and sustaining) support and contributions to this site. I am greatly honored by your on-going support and readership.

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