There is a concern amongst many commentators that social networking sites, such as Facebook, Bebo, Twitter and MySpace, signal the end of “real” relationships as we know them. Janet Street-Porter, in a column in The Daily Mail subtly titled “Why I Hate Facebook”, says that that online social networks are “shallow” and “pathetic”, because they “delude users into thinking that they are experiencing and managing real relationships”. Obviously this could be dismissed as a particularly jaundiced perspective from a Grumpy Old Woman, but I believe what is more interesting here, is the transformation (or perhaps, evolution) of relationships, rather than the end of anything in particular.
There is no doubt that people are now shifting a significant proportion of their daily activities to the online environment, and that to a large degree, the systems and structures determined by technology are slowly infiltrating every aspect of our lives. In addition to using the internet for gathering information, reading the news, playing massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as “World of Warcraft” and “Age of Conan”, shopping, and communication, people are also using it to meet friends, form social networks, build communities, and even construct identities.
But it doesn’t mean that online relationships will replace our current relationships. The problem that is being highlighted here is that there is a tendency to think that any change will dramatically refashion the way we live our lives, when in fact, research (and experience) suggests that this is less than realistic. When it comes to human interaction, the arguments of the doomsayers fail to recognise the persistence of ambiguity and complexity in all of our relationships.
For some people (including people who might have difficulty forming relationships, such as those with social phobias, or forms of autism), the online environment is a perfect means by which they can meet like-minded others, and express who they are. In the same way that we construct an identity when we go on a date by choosing a particular restaurant, or take a potential client to a footy game to impress upon them that we are like them, the online environment allows people to show their [online] friends what they want them to see. We try to create and manipulate our identity all the time, and in both the online and offline world, we don’t have control over how people might interpret this construction.
By updating what we are doing, posting photos, or providing book recommendations, we are broadcasting our lives to people who might be interested, and, when people respond, it feels good to be noticed and valued. For a person who doesn’t have a regular interaction with others in a workplace, such as the growing number of workers who work from home, are freelance, or consultants, then this is a good way to stay connected with the world. It doesn’t replace other relationships, it is just an additional means of interaction.
There seems to be a notion implied in a lot of commentary that the only “real” relationships are those that are deep, ongoing, personal, and face-to-face. In fact, we form all sorts of relationships with people, and the online environment is, ultimately, just another form of facilitation, just like the telephone, SMS, email, and even letters. Of course some people will have preferences, and of course, the telephone, SMS, letters and email, would never replace the close, caring, reciprocal relationships that we have with people with whom we interact together in the same environment on a regular basis. But I would argue that there are plenty of people who maintain close, caring and authentic relationships with people via the telephone, email and online social groups. Ultimately, what Facebook and the online environment does is facilitate another form of relationship, and what critics have to realise is that social systems are constantly reconfigured by the interaction of the observer and observed, the system and environment, human and technology.
The reality is that in many cases, relationships are multiform and multifaceted. We might have 258 Facebook friends, but these are Facebook friends. As in other relationships, there would be a few of those friends that you can call on if you were in need of a lift home tonight, and similarly, others that you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable asking them if you could stay at their place for a night when you are next in London, Sydney, or Guantanamo Bay.
The one major concern here is that social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo, and Twitter, may eventually commodify relationships. Facebook’s founders have said that it will be two to three years before they are able to “fully monetise the business model”, which really means they have no idea at the moment how to make money from Facebook. Present attempts with “targeted” advertising are pretty rudimentary and are easily ignored. But it won’t be long until someone is smart enough to reconsider the core logic by which we approach our understanding of the consumer, and the social nature of consumption.
In light of our emphatic adoption of technology, it should be these concerns that commentators should be focusing upon. When the social world becomes a commercial world, it is cause for concern, but at present the business world is struggling as much with this model as poor, old Janet Street-Porter.
This article was originally published at Online Opinion on 24 February, 2009.