An Admission

I feel more connected to family and friends because of social technologies.

There, I said it.  It felt a little dirty, I’ll admit.  That statement, in some circles and according to some pundits is completely off-base.  Social networks, while revolutionizing both mainstream media and our own personal connection to media, are shouldering the blame for a lack of interpersonal skills exhibited by students in our schools.  The video game industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief now that Facebook has become the main target of these barbs.

Granted, I am not basing this on any scientific research, just conversations among teachers over the course of the last few weeks; however, the verdict among the teachers I speak with is clear: social networks are changing the ethics and definition of the word “friend.”  What we share within our online networks, be them Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, MySpace (does anyone still use this?), or in any other of the numerous networks, is much more than we have ever been able to share in our face-to-face networks.  Is that bad?  Is hyper-social a negative?  Is it that the opportunities for us to share have never been so numerous or easy, and we would have done this generations ago if our parents had simply let us talk on the phone all the time instead of the 10-minute chunk of time we had per evening?

But that’s not the real issue that I’ve been hearing about.  It’s the questions of what they are sharing and should they be sharing it at all.  Call it what you will: digital citizenship, new literacy, digital ethics, digital footprint, the fact of the matter remains that students ages 5-22 are doling out personal information to people they consider “friends” whose very inclusion into said category would not match the traditional standards of that term by their parents’ standards.  So we need to get a working definition here.  What is a friend?  How do your students, colleagues, or close personal contacts define the term?  Google says it’s these:

  • a person you know well and regard with affection and trust; “he was my best friend at the university”
  • ally: an associate who provides cooperation or assistance; “he’s a good ally in fight”
  • acquaintance: a person with whom you are acquainted; “I have trouble remembering the names of all my acquaintances”; “we are friends of the family”
  • supporter: a person who backs a politician or a team etc.; “all their supporters came out for the game”; “they are friends of the library”

Taking these, the third one looks to bear the most resemblance to what most students are using as their defining criteria.  Are our student tossing around the moniker of friend when they really mean something more akin to acquaintance?  The difference, while subtle, is huge in the connotation of the word.  Friend is deep, acquaintance is shallow.

Personally, since I have been a participant in the networks I have created, I’ve noticed deeper connection to those individuals in my life whom I would call friend in any context, and I’ve been able to acquaint myself with many individuals with like interest in the areas I have rooted interest in.  In the chances where I have had to meet individuals from the networks I am a part of and share a conversation, it’s added a dimension, or should I say removed a barrier, to that relationship.  We’ve had a chance to converse in some form before actually meeting, or even speaking in most cases.

We lament the ease with which our students share information about themselves and to whom they bestow the title of friend.  But to what extent are they doing much the same things that we are, only in a manner that speaks to their rooted interests?  Understandably, we need to make sure they are being safe and they understand the rules of the “game” but has this become a question of mere semantics for them?  Is a friend a friend, or is it not?

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5 thoughts on “An Admission

  1. Have you found yourself acting differently based on the network? I find that FB is so much about my past (school friends), I act a certain way, more reserved than I am on Twitter. I do feel more connected to friends I haven’t seen in awhile, but still feel a pull to be a certain persona on FB.

    1. Beth,

      That’s a really interesting question. I’ll admit, my participation on FB lately is very sporadic–more reading and lurking rather than engaging in conversation. However, I do relate to your feeling about other networks that consists of people I know professionally, or rather, network with professionally. With social networks like Facebook, I do think we get locked into similar patterns that we occupy in our normal social realms. It’s their nature to replicate our real life.

      With professional networks, I, too, feel a bit less constrained by learned roles and can express more.

  2. Could there also be a cultural element here? We Americans have often used the word “friend” a good deal more lightly than have people in other countries. John McCain is perhaps the most recent of many politicians who obsessively the word to address American voters.

    My friends in England and continental Europe are often a bit put off by our casual conceptions of friendship–and that began long before the rise of social networking sites.

    It may be interesting to trace the impact of social networking sites in countries like England, Germany or the Czech Republic.

    1. Claus,

      Great point. Personally, I dislike the verb form of “friend,” but I understand its use. Let me know if you have any connection to anyone that is studying this in Europe.

  3. I am so glad you said this! It has taken nearly 20 years for folks to realize that powerful connections can and are made when there is a “meeting of the minds” -sans the physical world. I am not sure why this is a difficult concept –people have long connected without the benefit of a physical presence first by writing and later by phone.

    Have you seen Michael Wesch’s Anthropological Introduction to YouTube? Fasinating look at “new forms of expression, community, and identity”. Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPAO-lZ4_hU

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