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Of Cybermen and the end of relationships as we know them


The executive director of the venerable New York Times has come out fighting against Facebook and other social media.


Bill Keller has joined the conga line of commentators decrying the end of friendships and knowledge as we know it by arguing that much of the interaction on social media sites is “reductive and redundant”.


In an article in his paper, he suggested that “basically we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud.” Keller seeks to embolden his argument by quoting a conversation with writer Joshua Foer who told him that “This is the story of the next half-century, as we become effectively cyborgs.”


Keller is accompanied by Janet Street-Porter, who, in a column in The Daily Mail in February 2009 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”.


While I do agree partially with Keller about the distinction between information and knowledge, technology and progression has always been met with end of the world proclamations.


Obviously these forays into the cyber war could be dismissed as a particularly jaundiced perspective from a bunch of grumpy old Luddites (which Keller admits).


But I believe what is more interesting here, is the transformation (or perhaps, evolution) of relationships, rather than the end of anything in particular.


How relationships evolve


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 role-playing games, shopping, and communication, people are also using it to meet friends, get in touch with old ones, 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.


In fact, research (and experience) suggests that this is less than realistic.


Manipulating impressions


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.


Social networking improves relationships


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 FacebooktumblrTwitter and the online environment does is facilitate another form of relationship.


Measuring your friends


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.


Keller’s 13 year old daughter might have accumulated 171 Facebook friends within an hour of joining, 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, New York, or Guantanamo Bay.


Putting a price on friendship


The one major concern here is that social networking sites may eventually commodify relationships.


Facebook is still trying to “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 Bill Keller and Janet Street-Porter.


This article was also published at The Conversation.


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