Monday, July 21, 2008

When those we like=those we are like

I've been reading a lot of blogs over the past month, probably too many blogs. In my Twitter escapades, I've been a hungry learner, clicking on links and following leads, trying to learn as much as I can about social media. I didn't wade into the shallow end, I dove off the high dive.

In many ways, I felt like Alice in Wonderland...I recognized the characters but it was a weird, upside down, cyberworld that seemed nonsensical to me almost all of the time. And, foolishly perhaps, I openly displayed my slack-jawed incomprehension, hoping to be pitied, tutored, and finally embraced by this colorful, dynamic world of buzzing social extroverts. Much of the time, I was positively dizzy by the pace of it all, as I watched lives being lived rush past me. Some days, I found it almost intoxicating.

In hindsight, I can see I was following an old pattern...when I get bored with my life or my work becomes too difficult or too tedious, I immerse myself in something new and feel the zest and excitement that one feels as a beginning student or as a traveler setting off on the first leg of a journey into an unfamiliar part of the world.

But while I am in in this world, I clearly am not of it. I don't work in technology, PR, marketing, or finance, I'm not a consultant, venture capitalist, or social media "guru", and I've felt this tension of being the outsider for as long as I been playing in this Twitter/Facebook land. I'm a terrible actor and so I've tried to embrace my outsider stance even during times where I was cast as a minor league pariah.

I clumsily stepped on toes, I questioned common wisdom, I scoffed at those higher up on the food chain than I am, partly out of ignorance but also because my values seem to differ so much from my online peers. I expressed bewilderment and sarcasm when I encountered statements, thoughts or feelings that made me incredulous: "Who ARE you? How can you claim THAT?? Isn't it dehumanizing to think of people as 'personal brands'?"

By and large, I was simply ignored, as a small child would be who interrupted their parents' dinner party. A few people welcomed me, if only for the novelty value of having a new face at the table, while others actively exiled me from their online family of friends and sent me to another room. And that's okay because, after all, we are really all strangers to one another online. No one "owes" me their friendship, it has to be freely given and I am sorry if I ever personally offended anyone.

I have only good feelings towards those I've interacted with in these social communities except the few who were confrontational, racist, sexist, or boorish. I've normally been treated with patient kindness even when I clearly didn't know a lot about what I was talking about and for that I am grateful.

But I'm also glad that I might have asked some uncomfortable questions or disturbed the clubhouse atmosphere of these cliquish communities. The majority of folks I met online were white, college educated, decently paid, spoke English as a first language, and were between the ages of 22 and 40 and, I have to say, many displayed a distinctly superior attitude, almost one of entitlement. I ran into very little social critique of the inequities of American society and our culture of leisure and consumption is positively reveled in. Even in my days working in the music industry, I never heard of people participating in this many parties! Even those people with families seem to travel and party a lot more than my offline friends and colleagues.

Of course, I'm a participant in all this activity even if I'm outside the dominant Twitter demographic. I brought up Iraq once, the indecent price of conference registrations several times, occasionally criticizing industries that think everything of worth can be measured, quantified, and ranked. And these comments feel FLAT so I got the message and kept my conversation personal (cats, weather, work, sleep, travel, family, etc.) instead of political.

In the end, a community is what it is and it is hard if not impossible for one individual to change the tenor of the discussion especially someone who is admittedly of very little influence. And I don't think it is my place to try to change something that is clearly so massively popular. But I do think it is my place to reflect upon my experience and see what was positive and what is lacking.

So while I might have fondness for the individuals I've encountered and I am completely in awe of their enthusiastic, almost mission-like ambition in their professions, I am unimpressed with the social networks that have emerged in this Web 2.0 world, at least the ones I have seen. In these circles, connections with like minds are made but isn't the point of all of this interdependent, global connectivity to interact with those who are different from ourselves, those who have different views on what's important in life, those from who we can learn something besides how to advance our career?

Instead, social networks seem to create niches where people who seem to have the same political and cultural values hang out together and empathize with each other's ups and downs. They are support groups more than change groups. There is a place for these types of friendships in all of our lives, lives where we are tired and bruised much of the time. I don't want to minimize this at all.

But at this point, I think that the excitement around social networks and the belief that they actually can lead to changes in our society is completely inaccurate and doesn't reflect their segregated nature. Maybe some time, down the road this could occur but not today and not tomorrow. The rule of like attracting like still remains a guiding principle of human behavior.

P.S. After rereading this I thought I should add that I hope to continue to Twitter away and participate on Facebook although maybe not at the same high, intense level as in recent weeks. And, if it still needs to be said, this post is meant to be a critique of the limitations of social networks, not of the individuals who compose them.


M said...

Damn, why didn't I find your blog before! I really like what you have to say--and partly because I don't hear other people saying it and I think all you're saying--and more--is important to be said, thought about, questioned, etc. Love this post and your insight/POV.

Valdis said...

yup, "birds of a feather, flock together" is a VERY strong driver of human behavior. People thought the internet would allow exposure to, and interaction with, diversity and difference, but it is the comfort of the echo chamber that we seek.