Thursday, January 19, 2012

Socialization in the Time of Social Media

Today my word for the day was serendipitous.  So I thought a play on the title of the book that Kate Beckinsale wrote her phone number in for the movie "Serendipity" was appropriate.  It was called "Love in the Time of Cholera".  I'll let you sort out what I mean.

Relationship Status
Facebook status goes from "in a relationship" to "single".  Like me I know you've seen this byline in your Facebook timeline.  It makes me miss the days when your relationship status wasn't public property.  Not that it is by any means, but some days the way social media works you think you are obligated in some way to tell the world this unfortunate truth.

I must admit that after my marriage ended it was somehow empowering to go into one of my media networks and boldly go from "married" to "single".  It was more than just a declaration to the people who knew and loved me.  It was a declaration to myself.  Somehow making that one move put me on the path to understanding why I was in the situation I was in and how I could avoid returning there in the near future.

Love and Hate
I have a love hate relationship with social media.  I see it's potential in bridging the gaps between people and I also see the possible destruction from making so much of your existence not as private as it used to be.  I'm a Generation X'er.  By nature we are more skeptical while being opportunistic.  It has a lot to do with being raised by Baby Boomers and their changing value systems.  I think the irony of this is that no one has embraced social media like the generations that flank us.  Those being our Baby Boomer parents (well not mine, but some of us) and our Millennial understudies.

For those wondering, the Millennials are the generation of people who are being born with the Internet as a part of their lives.  The constantly 'plugged-in' set while us Gen X'ers are mostly involved yet quite on the fence with our involvement.  We see the opportunity social media creates, but we are somewhat fearful of the loss of self for the cause.  I see it all of the time as my generation picks and chooses what social media outlets will hold their time and attention, and which ones they just can't be bothered with because it's that step too far.

Live Journal
I think back to the days of high school crushes and random childhood gossip, and I see the implications for what could've been if every time someone in my clich√© 'broke-up' it became social fodder.  And I find myself grateful that there isn't an archive somewhere of my high school follies.  I know a lot of people a little younger than me that can't say the same thanks to LiveJournal.  But it brings me face to face with the changing tide of how technology has affected how we perceive and feel about human relationships.  With the ability to make your relationship a matter of public media, you risk affecting the intimacy that good relationships can cultivate.  I find myself wondering if you can also increase it.

Words are powerful things.  I should know I'm a writer : ) And I often prefer writing someone and not telling someone because my written word is always going to be more eloquent, direct, and poignant than my spoken words.  I just don't think in speech like I think in written word.  So I can write tantalizing love letters and flowing poetry yet have the damnedest time getting those words out of my face.  It leaves me to wonder which face is my true face.  What is it about captured language that makes it a preferable option to me and apparently to many of the people in our tech world today who prefer text messaging to phone calls.

I have often read things friends have said to me as a comment on Facebook and I wondered at the authenticity of it.  But not in the way you might think.  My friends have written some of the loveliest sweetest things I've ever read about myself to the point that I have been moved to tears. I know these people well and they know me and I wonder if we were face to face would they reveal that much of their true feelings about me or if the specter of the screen and the loose feeling of anonymity have somehow changed the nature of the discourse.  Has being able to channel these feelings through a source that can feel as intimate as a computer can sometimes opened a door to a true core of emotion that maybe unrealized in any other way.

I know that I have stated true feelings through this medium to other people that I would never have the gall to say to their face and I wonder why.  In those moments of typing as I stared at the words as they hit the page I knew that not telling the truth would be like lying to myself.  And at every turn as I read my own words the lie of it would become unbearable and the message would be left unsaid . . . unsent.

Beyond that personal belief, it was the freedom of knowing that I can get my thoughts out without instant rejection because of response time.  When you state things to someone's face you see instantly how well received or not well received they are.  At least with awkward silence there is a sense of accomplishment because you can't be sure about how someone has taken your commentary, but you can be sure that you made your position clear.

We are a society accustomed to speaking over each other.  In ordinary conversations the person who has the most aggression will usually be heard over all while the meeker participants will be overshadowed.  However in the written word, in an online chat sense, everyone has a position of potential equal say.  Like nothing else, written messages demand that the normal call and response procedures of communication be adhered to.

If you're like me then there is nothing you hate more than an unanswered message.  The very nature of sending a message calls upon habits that should be ingrained by any participant in 'polite' society.  If someone has taken the time, energy, and effort to communicate with you, you at least owe them an acknowledgement of the effort. Often in face to face conversations the subject can be rerouted, changed, and ultimately ignored as you substitute surrounding incidents for current 'undesirable' conversation.  However it is hard to deny a message.  It is almost like a receipt.  The sender and the recipient know this took place and how they choose to deal with it usually determines the level of care and regard you give the person because they have stated the level of care and regard they hold for you. These are all factors that would aid in understanding the level of involvement you can or cannot have with another person.

In a relationship my partner will get both.  I'll say the words I'm thinking, and then reinforce them with poetry, cards or other little notes of affection.  But does this create its own from of intimacy without the content of being there in person?  I imagine my lover can look at the words on a screen or page and then remember how I smell, my smile, how I look at them, how I touch them. Written words can touch, but they can't feel.  They can imply, but they can't determine. Beyond that, they bare more weight when they are private, and not made available for prying eyes.

How does one create intimacy through a social media?  Is this something that is even remotely possible?  Studies have shown that people make judgment calls on others based on some of their social media choices yet I'm not always sure if reposting a cute kitten picture is the best identifier for a person.  Memes have been dedicated to the insensitive things people are willing to say from the safety of a computer screen yet there haven't really been any that talk about what people feel are inappropriate matters to be discussed in an online format.  All is open for discussion apparently.

It is very easy to find a blog post or site where people come together to discuss their heartbreak and what they are going through.  Love in the digital age has become more digital than social.  What was once something between 2 people and their closest friends and relatives has become searchable by the masses.  In many ways it does remind us that we are all the same.  But in other ways it stamps out those wonderful fundamental differences.  In the end, this is another face we place on just like any other.  How is this relationship, picture, status a true indication of the person that speaks about it?  How is this reflection to be perceived?  At face value or as a characteristic of something that is more evolved than previously thought.

This face is one that can be constructed to a larger degree than any other face.  I like experimenting with look, style, and perception.  My photos are a clear indication of that.  I like playing with the idea that with a few simple changes I can become or appear to be someone other than who I am.  Well I think online characterization can be taken a full step beyond that.  What is real and what isn't?  Who is real and who isn't becomes more of a concern than in face-to-face encounters.  As we become overwhelmed by our own creations and they start to bleed into the reality of who we really are, who is to say that this is not who we really are now.

The key to understanding online personas is understanding the nature of the beast.  The internet, while it was originally created as a means for academics to communicate with each other, has become a venue of entertainment.  People online have to be taken with a grain of salt because more than anywhere else, you are being sold something.  It doesn't matter where you are, in a chat room, playing Xbox live, on a dating site, or just browsing news stories, someone wants you to 'buy' something.  Either that they care, don't care, that their view is correct, or this angle is the truth.  And in many cases they want your money. 

At our very base level we are a nation of con artists. It's called capitalism and the bottom line is gain. Is it no wonder each generation is able to instantly spot what will garner the best advantage and then take it?  At our most enlightened we are a nation of Buddhists abandoning the suffering of trade for altruism.  Deciding that the only way to stifle the will of capitalism is to disavow it.  But most of us are somewhere in the middle trying to make a worthwhile existence for ourselves and those we love.  So how does online interactions facilitate this is what I'm asking?  How does one go from being a stranger to being a friend through a social media site?

I think in the end it's like with all things.  You regard someone and recognize the traits they have in common with you.  Through this you build up a repoire, and then over time you become accustomed to their ways and methods of communicating.  Who they are has no choice but to present itself.

Beyond not writing things in all caps, online etiquette is this unrelenting, unestablished hierarchy of mismatched rules and sometimes lacking in manners rhetoric.  It is up to the person to decide what constitutes as real human interaction, and what is just a pale reminder that the object before us is only a machine with parts instead of heart.

The real issue is that sometimes people make the mistake of believing that the people on the other end of the line are just as unfeeling as the machine they are using to communicate with when the exact opposite is true.  Usually on the other end is someone who is all too human and for whatever reason needs the parts to help them declare and expose their heart.  It would be a shame if we as other human beings suffering the same fit weren't available to help them understand the difference between cold unemotional parts and moments given from the heart.

(Dedicated to all those who have never left me hanging ; )

Personalities Courtesy of:

Reply? Courtesy of:

Love you Courtesy of:

Caps Lock Courtesy of: