Social media allows us to make many connections but are they meaningful ones?

Internet Splat Map by jurvetson

"Internet splat map" by jurvetson on Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 By Attribution

From personal experience, more than ever before we can make new social connections and befriend people over a wide range of distance, culture and beliefs. I now know people in most capital cities of Australia, and in a number of regional cities, too.

The recent inaugural Digital Citizens event was chock full of social media inhabitants (enough for a swarm on Foursquare). Some were Social Media Douchebags, most were not. Given that while I was familiar with many of the attendees but only casually so, I took the opportunity to sit back and watch social networks manifest in the flesh. Maybe it’s my training as a sociologist, but I love observing people when they don’t think they’re being observed (not as creepy as it sounds – well, just a little bit creepy, but you know you love it). I was curious about how deep some of these networks really were, and the results were interesting.

I noticed that most people seem to flit from one group to the next, spending only a few minutes at a time with any one group, pressing flesh, maintaining the network and then skipping off to the next group. Rinse. Repeat. [1]

Others stayed in one spot and let the flitters come to them. They seemed to be familiar enough faces with people  that they had a steady stream of short conversations with the many network gatherers. This is possibly the same activity, only from a different angle.

Some people quickly formed into a small, comfortable group and hived themselves off from the main collective.  They seemed to be closed groups, as if to say “We’ve got all the friends we need right now. Sorry. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of other people to talk to”. I’m not suggesting anyone was deliberately rude but in a large gathering with a many loosely formed temporary alliances, the tight-knit groups stood out, no matter how hard they tried to hard in the dark corners of the venue.

Surprisingly few were like me, sitting back and watching everyone else. My suspicion is the observer personality often parks behind a camera (still or video), which provides a legitimate reason for watching without interacting too much. Frankly, I was a little jealous of their cover. I found this interesting only in that the stereotype for heavy social media users is sad, no-life losers who can’t make friends in real life and spend all their time on the computer instead. Although I know this to be a fallacy, I was still surprised at how few obvious introverts were present on the night. [2]

My point? I “knew” a lot more people on the night than I actually spoke to, and even of those I did speak to, very few conversations progressed beyond pleasantries and small talk. I observed very similar conversations happening around the bar for most of the  night (so it’s not just the fact that I’m crap at small talk and boring to talk to, so there :P ). The real conversations didn’t seem to settle in until later in the evening when the room was emptying fast.

And so, I wonder…

How strong are the social connections for people who, like me, conduct the bulk of their daily non-work related social interactions online? It has become possible to know quite personal and intimate details about other people through my online relationship with them. I know Lachlan holds Batman almost as closely and dearly as life itself, or that Barry was once good friends with my wife’s cousin, or the ongoing toilet training successes of Mel’s young lad. People have shared internal workplace policy documents with me (nothing nefarious – comparing workplace terms and conditions within the context of enterprise bargaining). My wife has sought (and gratefully received) freelancing advice from someone in another state she has never met.

Yet, with all that intimacy, I’m generally none the wiser about hopes and dreams, personal influences, or even how they are really feeling.

Admittedly, I’ve never had that many close friends to begin with. Perhaps I’m just an atypical case. But I also wonder, is the concept of “friend” changing as we move further into the 21st century?

Just thinking out loud here. No answers, just questions. If you have answers, I would love to hear them.

[1] I’m excluding the organisers of the event from this. Schmoozing is an important part of being a good host.
[2] And a thank you to those who did stop and chat for more than 5 minutes and who seemed genuinely interested in how I was doing. I don’t get out much. Your efforts were appreciated and improved my mood on the night immensely.

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2 Responses to Connections

  1. Matt Moore says:

    I’ve never had that many close friends to begin with. Perhaps I’m just an atypical case.

    I don’t think that’s unusual at all. Most of us have 4-5 people who are close, life-long friends. It takes a lot of effort to maintain a close friendship (and obviously there are rewards) and you simply can’t do that with hundreds of people.

    The Digital Citizens session mostly focused on the legal/employment issues of online identity – which is understandable but a little limiting. What your post here touches on are the broader issues around how we manage who we are online.

    And a key issue is deciding how many connections and “friends” we want to have. How many we can manage. How many we can be fair to.

  2. Shane Perris says:

    Very good points, Matt.

    The issue of “fairness” is that particularly interests me. I become fascinated by people who maintain a very large but shallow online social network. It seems to me that it is inevitable that someone important to that individual will be become disappointed and feel let down simply because it had become impossible to pay attention to anyone.

    I don’t like letting people down so I make an effort to keep my networks to a manageable level which in turn enables me to develop a certain level of familiarity with the people I do connect with. This leads to a richer connection in my own view, but no doubt there are other opinions.

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