Electronic Communication And Life Histories

Do you think that social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace are eliminating the need for real social interaction? I was doing an Internet survey the other day that was about interactions with close friends — something along the lines of, “list your top five friends, and then list the last way you communicated with them.” For me, few of my closest friends live in the same city as me, so my answers largely involved some form of electronic communication — e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging and others.

To be sure, there’s a difference between posting your status on Facebook as a way of communicating with your friends and family and actually sending personalized messages back and forth via some other form of electronic communication. But is this kind of communication anything like speaking to them in person? It is certainly convenient, and even leads to more live interaction in some cases, though some of the key differences are obvious. You can’t hug your old friend through the Internet, and you can’t use social cues like gaze to interpret what the person means when he or she says it. Communication is generally stripped of all other nonverbal cues as well, including things like prosody and speech disfluencies in the case of text conversations.

It’s been said that one reason humans tend to find mates for life (or at least try our darnedest to achieve this) is because we want another person to attest to our life history — to witness the unfolding of our years. Honestly, my life is pretty well documented through electronic media. Facebook has years worth of pictures and comments and messages, my e-mails go way back, I have accounts on Tumblr and Flickr and Livejournal and Twitter and even OKCupid. I have poetry online that I wrote in high school and my middle school website is still around somewhere on Angelfire.

Do we really need people anymore?

When I posed this question to my friends, one of them responded that he completely understood — we have an innate desire to be recorded, so it’s quite consistent with human nature that we would endeavor to record our own lives in a public forum.

When I mentioned this article to my boyfriend and suggested that online social communities may be able to document our lives and eliminate the need for documentation by another human being, his response was, “You think Facebook eliminates our desire to get married?” No, the issue is a little more complex. First of all, I would like to hope that getting married is about a bit more than documentation! But second of all, when another human being can attest to one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings, there are surely different consequences from those that come from posting what you ate for lunch on Twitter, or posting a Facebook update asking friends which party to go to on Saturday night.

For one thing, when someone else is your witness, the persistence of your thoughts and feelings comes from a second perspective; from someone who has had to adapt their theory of mind to understand what you were experiencing. And that second perspective can last through time. Although you can certainly look up something that was posted on a blog a few weeks ago, being able to access a lifetime of status updates is probably something that will not be as possible. And then, there is also the issue as to how honest people are in social forums compared with their willingness to open up to friends or romantic partners.

What is interesting is that the tendency to be open in online forums can, at times, cross a fine line between fostering communication and over-sharing. Take Julia Allison’s Nonsociety blog, where nearly every minute of her life is recorded via some medium, whether it be text, photograph, or video. Such pseudo-celebrities have received negative criticism for being outlandish and egocentric. But why is she a celebrity? Because she has a big mouth and a nice wardrobe, and she pushed her way to the top.

One of my colleagues recently told me his opinions on such blogs — “Why do people feel the need to record everything they put into their mouths? Half of those damn things are obsessed with mundane day-to-day details, like what you ate for dinner last night.” Apparently someone cares, because those blogs still have plenty of followers. And likely, they are the people that are there to help document that blogger’s life.

Why are we so interested in the minutiae of others’ lives? Westerners certainly get a big kick out of following celebrities’ antics and also from the voyeurism inherent in watching films and reading literature. It might be because we want to relate to the human condition (why else do we get so excited when Woody Allen breaks through the fourth wall and relates his dilemmas to us directly?). Social networking sites definitely make it easier to understand more about the current thoughts and feelings — the synchronic “human condition” — of our friends and acquaintances. And the possible consequences of such free-flowing personal information? Probably both positive and negative, as with many technological innovations. As information flows faster and freer, time will tell whether or not this online social networking fad is as transient as the ’zines of the early ’90s.

Melissa Troyer is a graduate student in Course IX.