Friday, January 16, 2009

Social Networking - by, Christopher

I began my lengthy, on-again, off-again affair with social networking back in the long-gone yesteryear of 1997. I have hazy, sepia-toned memories of creating my very first user profile and adding my first animated gif. I think it was of a cow infinitely chewing hay, or something equally riveting.

As most of you probably know from experience, I only have the ability to correspond in sporadic bursts with those whom are not in the same room. Time after time, I treat correspondence with friends and family the same way I might treat a fad weight-loss diet. I start off optimistic, and enthusiastic, writing three or four messages a week to people I haven't spoken to in years.

But all it takes is one day of not checking in and I'm done for, akin to the tiny bite of chocolate cake that can destroy a diet completely.

The truth is that my last failed attempt at social networking didn't start out that way. I, like many of you, started out on MySpace so that I could look at girls in bikinis who lived in my area. Or at the very least, to look at pictures of girls in bikinis who don't live in my area posted by other guys who were looking for pictures of girls in bikinis who lived in their area.

But MySpace was like a siren song, I couldn't turn my ship to port. I steamed on past all reason and judgement. I spent hours fiddling with my page in HTML, searching the web for just the right personality quiz to include, trying to decide if this garish, novelty font or that garish, novelty font really expressed my personality accurately. Or more honestly, if this or that doo-dad expressed the personality I wanted to have.

And all the while my friend list piled up like the kind of traffic accident that only takes place in icy road conditions, with each car sliding inexorably into the mounting pile of wreckage before it. Until I realized one day that I was supposedly friends with people I never knew and still didn't know, bands whose music I'd never heard, and in one rare (and especially embarrasing) case, with the pet dog of a complete stranger.

Leaving MySpace was easy enough. I just stopped logging on. But ignoring the beast I had created was quite another matter. My email accounts were deluged with messages from strangers, advertisements for organ enlargement (why would I need to enlarge my organs?), invitations to meaningless groups, and items written in such rudimentary language that all meaning was lost.

So I chose the nuclear option and deleted my silly, fake life I had built.

In hindsight, it's pretty easy for me to see the forest for the trees. MySpace was just another social network, albeit one dressed up like some kind of urgent lifestyle accessory. And my history with social networks is a transparent cautionary tale of too much enthusiasm followed swiftly and unerringly with total apathy. I thought that I was finally "getting it" with MySpace, that this time it would be different for me.

But I was only just biding my time until the slick gleam wore off.

Facebook has much less gleam than MySpace. In fact Facebook, by comparison, wears sort of a frumpy frock. This appeals to many of its devotees who want a simple interface and a rigid code of conduct. In large part Republicans. This keeps out most of the kids (read: below college age), at least compared to MySpace. And that's nice.

But it also makes for some pretty stilted, unimaginative, banal chatter. My initial experience with Tweet produced a similar impression. I can't even muster the masochism or self-loathing to stay interested for very long in the activities of celebrities and politicians. Why should I even attempt to care about every mundane occurance in the lives of my friends and associates? "Just put a couple burgers on the grill" was the Tweet I received one Saturday afternoon from a guy at work.

I spent over half an hour staring at the tiny display on my phone wondering, "how can I possibly respond to that? How could anyone? And what would be the purpose of any response at all?!?"

"Good," I finally replied in defeat. It was a bleak crossroads I had come to. I could soldier on in misery, validating pointless chit-chat in the hopes that perhaps one day I would uncover something interesting. Or I could drop Tweet. My record speaks for itself.

Facebook irks me in much the same way (Why is anyone expending the energy to tell me that they just became a fan of this or that? Should I be considering becoming a fan of this or that? Is that why you are telling me? Do you have the slightest interest in whether I come to like the same things that you do? Or are you just bored? And if you are just bored, why don't you go watch reality television like everyone else that is bored, instead of taking the time to elaborately and indirectly tell me you are bored?).

Facebook feels pretty restrictive for somebody migrating from MySpace. I'm used to seeing everbody's underwear immediately on the first click. With Facebook, it seems like every step I take I need approval from somebody, Ineed to flash my badeg or get to the back of the line. Facebook makes it much more difficult to pry in other people's private affairs, or to pry in other people's fictional private affairs. This is a really good feature, and a kind of boring limitation.

Chances are I'm not going to learn anything about you that you don't expressly want me to know with Facebook. All your pics are cleverly arranged and generally give the impression that you are well-adjusted and urbane. The information you have included about yourself in your profile is sparse. Little can be discerned. I know almost nothing of your habits or your personality beyond what I can guess from the comment you wrote on a mutual friend's wall, "ROFL, just another night!" I can only assume that you mean that you do whatever is hapening in the tiny picture above quite often and usually in the evening. And that you have rolled on the floor laughing in realizing this fact. Gotcha. I am nonplussed.

You could say, well, that comment wasn't for me. It was for someone else. I'm not suposed to get anything out of it. You're right. I agree. That's what personal email is for, and it works wonders for one-to-one communication. Why am I being included in your one-to-one communication? What am I supposed to get out of that experience, beyond a vague feeling of distaste for my fellow man?

I keep thinking that if I could just find a social network that didn't eventually bore me into a stupor I might be able to stick with one for the long haul and really integrate it into my life. I think the problem is that the details of almost everyone's lives are comprised of inherently boring trivia, interspersed with rare occurances of eventfulness. And it's just normal people out there on the other end of these things after all, no matter how trumped-up we try to make it, or exclusive we try to make it, or vulgar, or refined, or complicated or simple.

I think I'm going to attempt a regression of form to pen-and-paper and the good old pony express. Is that even feasible in today's world? I don't know. I'm going to sign off now and see if I can figure out the logistics of what it would take for me to maintain handwritten correspondence with my various loved ones.

Probably I'll get started immediately, with a lot of enthusiasm.

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