After a self imposed moratorium from the now ubiquitous facebook I have had pause to think about the phenomenon that gets termed social networking. I glanced at a link on google+ from +Robert Llewellyn, who I found from his @bobbyllew twitter account, about the perceived political motivations behind facebook. I need to read it more deeply but as I scanned the site, one of the throwaway comments that resonated with my view was "people's need to collect friends and be popular, in the sense of an American high-school teenager. " I'm not sure why it needs to be an "American" teenager, perhaps they are better at it than the rest of the world.
This does appear to be borne out on all the sites I have seen, there are awards or rewards for becoming a super-user. On the sites I am familiar with, they publicly display your number of contacts/followers/friends as some badge of honour. We seem to actively feed that teenage need to be superficially popular. For many of us it doesn't matter if we have 500+ contacts of people who have very little real connection to us, the system is merely an address book that is maintained by your contact for you. Like Plaxo was before it became a virus. I realise that calling it an address book is a massive over simplification of a more complex modern phenomenon. As a society in the current era, we tend to be very distant from each other, not just physically but figuratively and online networking is probably feeding a need to feel part of a community, to feel connected to the lives of family and people with a shared interest. Still for many people a badge like 500+ does seem to be a status symbol to be displayed. Even in Google+ there are networks of people that seem to be collecting followers like trophies and are celebrating each others' apparent success in collecting vast numbers. I'm not sure what value it has, I have found that my twitter feed and my facebook wall have become so clogged with casual comments from people I have "collected" that I am missing messages that are more important to me. In theory G+ might provide an elegant way to handle this phenomenon with circles but I fear it may descend into the stream of chatter that I have found Facebook and Twitter have become.
So is it really networking? Networking itself is a fairly recent phrase, I remember being told I was a good networker and not having a clue what it meant. Obviously that may be more to do with my own knowledge but I do think it's a modern context for an older word. Making friends, making acquaintances, being generally sociable are all traits that have served people well for generations. These are skills we want our children to adopt as usually people fair better as a collectively supportive society (see comments on enlightened self interest). So why do we fear them collecting online connections in what sometimes appears to be an automated and systematic process? It could be that we are simply technophobic and I do believe that many are, especially those who read mainstream media reports that are designed to provoke emotion not debate. But many are not, like myself, in fact I have experimented with quite a few of the so called networking sites, but I still have some concerns over the "collectors". I think we need to teach new users the difference between a casual acquaintance who may be a useful contact in the future and who maintains their own contact details from a person who you merely wish to follow their views as they are expressed, to the vitally different "friend"; be that a close personal friend or a casual friend.