THE SOCIAL NETWORK
The new media has more revelatory power than we know how to handle and is developing faster than the culture we need to protect us.
One of the curiosities of the new media is the absence of agreed custom and convention over how we use it. Etiquette is developed over long periods of time, honed by human experience and the wish for social harmony. We learn how to queue properly because it protects those who are more vulnerable from being elbowed out of the way. By contrast the new technologies have emerged so quickly that we have yet to agree a consensus on using them in a way that promotes rather than undermines social cohesion.
I was reminded of this as I watched the film The Social Network, about the stratospheric rise of Facebook. The idea for this network was only sprung in 2003 and it has already altered the nature of human communication. A characteristically smart and sassy script by West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin has given shape to a court room battle between Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and his detractors at Harvard who claimed he stole their idea to make himself the world’s youngest billionaire. Those who are alert to the peculiar class structures of Ivy League Universities will wince at the undertone of moneyed and muscled Wasps squaring up to a nerdy Jewish outsider half their size.
The script does not need to labour the sad paradox of the initiation of the world’s most formidable social networking site by a collection of friends who fell out viciously with one another. It is unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg has taken kindly to his depiction as an anti-social individual lacking in empathy, but then the phenomenon he has created has, in its own way, given rise to serious concerns about privacy and personal identity.
Zuckerberg has been described as an accidental billionaire yet there is a philosophy behind the Facebook brand worthy of attention. Divisions between public and private persona are deemed artificial and misleading and the Facebook page overcomes such a dichotomy. It is a peculiar twenty-first century version of the continental Puritans who eschewed net curtains in their front windows because others should be entitled to see the purity of the home life. Except Facebook reveals anything but this.
For many people, Facebook is a wonderful way of keeping in touch with friends, even if this noun is often stretched to mean someone you stood next to in a shop for five minutes one day. One in four parents say they use it to keep in regular touch with their children (though the suspicion is that the other three in four are deliberately kept away from their offspring’s digital life). It is also a means of sustaining relationships which might otherwise wither through lack of time and attention. Though we have yet to see the outcome of such a tool on the social fabric, there is much to be cheery about.
There is another side, however, which causes concern. To what extent are teenagers maturing without a sense of the necessary psychological division between public and private which protects them from harm? From the insularity of the bedroom it is temptingly easy to change your status to reflect a sudden change in mood or attitude without remembering this may, in principle, be shared with countless others, not all of whom have your welfare at heart. I have seen the way that casual digital convresation can be turned against someone who showed no awareness of the danger. Digital footprints are difficult to remove and will haunt many people as hard evidence against their state of mind in years to come.
The most egregious uses of Facebook are slowly emerging, including the poor student from New Jersey who unwittingly had his sexual life exposed as live, streamed footage by malevolent acquaintances. Mortified, he took his own life. Facebook also permits less pre-meditated bullying and humiliation bullying because of the ease with which a status, including words and photos, can be posted.
For several years now there has been growing concern over the intrusiveness of the State, the so-called surveillance society. Perhaps we should be more worried about peer intrusion and the lack of agreed conventions over what is shared and what is not in the strange, virtual space between the public and the private. For centuries the omniscience of God has been a solace of believers. He knows who we are, how we feel and what we think. We can trust him because he cares about us. The new media is emerging with more of this revelatory power than we currently know how to handle and it is going to be a whole lot less friendly unless we develop some collective wisdom to inform our custom.
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