7 Nov

People, People who Poke People . . .

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/07/07

For several years, Christine Rosen has been writing a series of articles for The New Atlantis about the technologies of everyday life. Treating everything from computer games and personal identity (in "Playgrounds of the Self") to the effects of the proliferation of images in our culture, mediated by PhotoShop, Powerpoint, and other technologies (in "The Image Culture"), to online dating services (in "Romance in the Information Age"), Rosen has skillfully scrutinized how new ways of mediating space, time, and relationships are not simply new ways of accomplishing venerable ends, but, all too often, profoundly new practices with deep effects on the soul. (While you're reading her work, don't miss "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" and "Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?".)

Rosen has a perceptive sense of how technologies are never simply tools, serving also as talismans, metaphors, and templates for living. By conferring the ability to do something, technologies often convey a sense of the need to do something. And we rarely examine how both the need and the doing have rearranged our sense of who we are and how we might live well. We are all aware of the benefits of these new abilities, but rarely do we survey the possible (and often likely) liabilities.

The latest article by Rosen in this series is called "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism," which looks at some of the personal and social effects of the so-called "social networking" websites, the most popular being Facebook and MySpace. Rosen commences her reflections on this new way of having "friends" by observing that "we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity." She goes on to ask whether this technology, "with its constant demands to collect (friends and status) and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermines our ability to attain what it promises--a surer sense of who we are and where we belong."

The intensification of personal uncertainty in these virtual settings seems to be acknowledged by Facebook's own administrators. Facebook users can send a "poke" to a friend, a digital nudge, a cyber-smoke-signal, that serves to, well, exactly what does it serve? On their help pages, Facebook's administrators seem to revel in the uncertainty of the poke. "A poke is a way to interact with your friends on Facebook," they "explain." "When we created the poke, we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose. People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings." Whatever. Given the fact that our anarchic and script-free patterns of social relations are already so confusing to young people wandering toward adulthood, one wonders whether such indeterminacy is really helpful. Apparently many Facebookies agree and would like greater definition in their interactions, Rosen reports that "one Facebook group with over 200,000 members is called 'Enough with the Poking, Let's Just Have Sex.'"

One of the aspects of these sites that concerns me the most is suggested in the "New Narcissism" reference in the title of her article. It is the effect on the possibility of sincerity and humility generated by the necessity in these settings to act as one's own publicity agent. Rosen observes that in the world of social networking, "users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one's own and others' lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence, there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month." Toward the end of the article, Rosen concludes: "The implications of the narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies of social networkers also cry out for further consideration. There are opportunity costs when we spend so much time carefully grooming ourselves online. Given how much time we already devote to entertaining ourselves with technology, it is at least worth asking if the time we spend on social networking sites is well spent. In investing so much energy into improving how we present ourselves online, are we missing chances to genuinely improve ourselves?"

A friend of mine who teaches at the University of Virginia has been doing some research on the new mode of friendship, and in conversation with students raised the question as to whether giving so much attention to creating one's online image wouldn't lead to vanity. The students stared blankly back, not sure what this "vanity" word meant, though they knew that a magazine title used the word. When my friend defined the vice in question, they continued to be baffled, not certain why this vanity thing was regarded as a problem. Their response may be evidence of the ways in which what is common in our experience is all too easily regarded as normal, and then as good.

Posted by Ken Myers on 11/8/07