When "Know Thyself" Becomes "Show Thyself"
Researcher Analyzes Costs of Virtual Friendship
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WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 2, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Online social networking sites are gaining popularity, but they may be transforming our culture in unexpected negative ways, said a biotechnology expert.
Christine Rosen, author and senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, said this as part of the John Henry Cardinal Newman Lecture Series, sponsored by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The talk, titled "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism," was broadcast March 13 on the Internet.
Rosen noted the popularity of online social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, stating that the latter reported 150 million members in January. If Facebook was a country, she added, it would be the eighth most populated nation worldwide.
She prompted a closer look at these sites, observing that most people ask the question, "What is it doing for us?" The author acknowledged that these tools help to bring people together and improve social networks; a person homebound with a unique illness can connect with a community of others in the same situation.
She continued: "But I'd like to ask a different question: What is it doing to us? What is it doing to our sense of social boundaries? To our sense of individuality? To our friendships?"
The researcher underlined the need to question the role of technology, and how it has changed the understanding of friendship. She stated, "Friendship in these virtual spaces is thoroughly different from real-world friendship."
Rosen noted, "These sites make some certain types of connections easier," but as they are not tied to geography or a community governed by its own social norms, they are subject to personal whims.
This, she said, "frees the person from any kind of responsibility that tends to come with membership in a community, and this changes the tenor of any relationships that tend to form there."
Traditionally, she observed, "friendship is a relationship which involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific contexts." It depends on mutual revelations, and can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy.
On networking sites, however, there is a concept of "public friendship," which is fluid, promiscuous and bureaucratic.
The author asserted that "the very architecture of these sites is set up to get you to behave in a certain way." It emphasizes gathering friends, ranking and managing them. She noted that it promotes a "frantic friend procurement where more is better."
Rosen affirmed that this demand to collect friends and to perform constantly by marketing ourselves can undermine "our ability to attain what the site promises, a surer sense of who we are and where we belong."
Today's social networking sites organize themselves around the person's hobbies, interests and photographs, she observed, and thus "your entry into this world is through the revelation of personal information."
The author acknowledged that these sites make it "easier to stay in contact with a wider circle of people," but she noted that they "favor interaction of greater quantity," not necessarily greater quality.
Rosen also pointed that the sites "are starting to encourage a different kind of narcissism." She added, "There are definitely opportunity costs when we spend so much time grooming ourselves online."
The researcher asked whether the time spent online is well-spent: "In investing so much energy in improving how we present ourselves online, are we missing opportunities to genuinely improve ourselves?"
The sites that encourage you to "broadcast yourself," which is the tagline for the video-sharing Web site YouTube, allows greater self-promotion than before, she noted, and can reinforce a belief that every mundane detail of our lives is worth publicizing.
She pointed out that many people engage in personal broadcasting just "because they can," but that they are often unaware that it also transforms who they are.
People are not just living in the moment, but are publicizing the moment, she said. It is a different level of experience that has real implications for the human person.
There is a cost, Rosen pointed out, seen in cases like the Florida man who committed suicide while people watched online. She explained: "The distance and abstraction of our online friendships and online relationships can lead to a kind of systemic desensitization as a culture if we are not careful about it. […] We expose everything, but are we feeling anything?"
The researcher noted along with the increase in online networking, there are increasing levels of reported loneliness. The sites make connections more convenient, taking the risk and real work out of a relationship and turning it into information.
She noted the arrival of a new networking site, boffery.com, which describes itself as "a place for you to document your sexual history and map your sexual connections."
People will always feel vulnerable about being cut off from the human community, she said, but these sites depend on a person's desire to reveal things about themselves or compare themselves to others, which can increase anxiety.
"Social networking sites have made our relationships more reliable," Rosen concluded, "but whether they have made them more satisfying remains to be seen."
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On the Net:
Lecture Series: http://ipsciences.edu/pages/research/the-john-henry-cardinal-newman-lecture-series.php