I have to make remarks next week about social networks. Everyone wants to talk about social networks. Maybe they think they don’t know enough about it, and they’re missing something.
Indeed, there are many people among us who aren’t involved in social networking, even those young people we all assume eat, sleep and breathe social networking sometimes don’t. I have to admit I’m one of the people who have not yet committed our daily day to it, who already have enough to do.
Why do people surrender to the compulsivity of social networks? Yes, it’s a highway of magnificent speed and range that takes you anywhere in a shrinking world. Yes, it’s a great way to open your mind and heart and connect with 500 million “friends” you wouldn’t otherwise know. What’s not to like?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, but I would have to say that not all my reasons would be the same as your reasons. For one thing, we’re probably in different generations and that yields different reasons. My reasons are not only practical, in some sense they’re also philosophical. I’ll tell you what I mean.
It’s almost unbelievable how far we’ve come in personal communications over one lifetime. When I was a kid, we had a family of four and only one phone, to which our parents had unquestioned priority. Long calls were interrupted and long distance calls, even not so long, were filled with static and expense.
That was in the 1950’s just around the time TV was coming into our homes, long before color. And it was years before even cordless phones followed them. And still years after that when cell phones (the old Motorola 5 pound bricks – oh, where is Motorola now) followed them. Progress was slower then.
Then things really speeded up. I think the smaller cell phones and better cell structures in out-of-the-way places woke people up to the possibility that the cell phone was going to revolutionize their lives and not kill their pocketbooks, well only a little anyway. They were right. Today, see iPhone.
The idea of walking down the street and making a call wherever and whenever you wanted, of not having to look for a beat-up telephone booth (whatever happened to them, anyway) to make a call, well that snuck up on us and emancipated us from the tyranny of monopolistic telephone companies.
An unbelievable transformation, all in one lifetime. If that wasn’t enough, then we got the web, and with it email, only 15 years ago. Gates recognized the web would change the computer and give rise to new forms of communications, but did he know then how it would come to govern our daily lives?
Outlook is more important than you think. It changed the way business is done. It changed the culture of personal communications. It gave birth to a new kind of reading and writing and even formatting and font. Correspondence will never be the same. Paper letters are fewer, perhaps with good cause.
Even filing systems are different. Why should an ordinary business or person keep all those unsearchable paper files around when all you need to do is create Outlook folders and presto you can find anything on the fly. There’s increasing pressure to catch up and get on the Gates bandwagon.
I suppose it’s ironic that the essential design of Outlook really hasn’t changed that much. Why doesn’t Microsoft take Outlook to another level? After all, it’s the world’s way to correspond. Justified or not, it’s completely ubiquitous and its effect is quite amazing. Gates’ Outlook alone has changed the world.
But the kids at Punahou don’t do email. They’ve moved on to Twitter and Facebook and others like that. Do they know something? Are they right, or is this just a fad, a bunny trail that goes nowhere and is a waste of time. Or is it the obligatory wave, the one that says you’d better get on board or watch out?
Maybe that’s why they want to come and hear my remarks. Perhaps they’re concerned they’ll lose the wave and feel silly when their peers make fun because they’re not facile with Twitter and Facebook and the like. Maybe that concern is what drove a billion people to get on the bus over the last few years.
Not me. I remember that for a radio show I did on HPR maybe five years ago I found, through an article in the New York Times and then some calls to the people listed, and then an hour’s radio show about it, there was a thing called social networking analysis. This was BEFORE we ever heard of Twitter.
The guy involved was a computer science geek out of the Midwest and trained and experienced in handling software that would read email and tell you about how a company really worked. It would draw for you the REAL organizational chart and tell you who was talking to whom, the real power.
He had some buddies around the country that did the same thing. They worked for or hired themselves out to large corporations to make these analyses, and were in great demand. Soon enough the group was called to Washington by intelligence agencies who needed them to fight domestic terrorism.
The government wanted them to analyze email it had obtained through little black boxes placed with internet providers, boxes that intercepted the mail from you and me, the public. Remember, this was in the era of “W” and was part of his rollback of the Bill of Rights under the Patriot Acts and otherwise.
This same social networking analysis would find those among us that had perhaps too many contacts or references with the bad guys, and who bore further watching by the gumshoes, who felt that instead of doing gumshoe work to find their man, all they needed was a social networking analysis black box.
It’s scary because it was the government using these new high tech tools against us. I’m talking about our government in our country against us. And I expect it still goes on, nine years after 9/11. These are the times in which we live. At will, the government can gather truckloads of information about us.
No more North Woods for us. The transparency is not them, but us. Our lives are an open book, or at least an open black box, and watch out or you’ll be on the wrong list, subject to invasion of privacy and political exposure, not the kind the Stasi used in East Germany perhaps, but invasion nevertheless.
Enter social networks, kissing cousin of social networking analysis. Now we could communicate with everyone. We didn’t need email or even one-on-one text messaging. We could send a message to unlimited recipients around the world with one click of the cellphone keypad. Now that’s progress.
I can send this message with one finger on my cellphone keypad. If I play it right, I can send a viral message global and even change the world. All I need is the right kind of message, with believability. I could inform or misinform millions with one finger on the keypad, but with little or no accountability.
Just as I can thrill my friends, I can also disclose strategic or dangerous information, with impunity. I can foment civil unrest and arouse political action. In 2003, Howard Rheingold wrote “The Smart Mob: The Next Social Revolution,” telling us how the new technology can empower an anonymous crowd.
Cell phones have become completely ubiquitous. Remember those kids in Blackhawk Down, how they reported the position of our troops in Mogadishu. Cellphones, old ones, trumped Blackhawks. I guess that’s the way it works in a world of leapfrogging technology, power paradigms changing overnight.
My point: The notion of web openness is a pendulum swinging. Sure, social networks like Twitter and Facebook give us freedom to relate to anyone anywhere, to make friends and send messages anywhere in the world instantly, and to organize groups and actions by pushbutton. But there’s another side to it.
Government has the technology and power to get into our privacy. Perhaps we hold on to the ridiculous assumption that we have privacy in social networks, something like the naive notion that we can run the boss down in office email. Our messages get out to strangers and to those who do not wish us well.
And this data has a way of getting out to the government, which may or may not be benign on a given issue, which keeps perpetual records of what it finds, and which can use or leak that information for its own purposes. You can see some of this in the political campaigns going on in Hawaii these days.
Information is power. Information about you is power over you. Are you sure you want to put your professional and family profile on Facebook and tell the world who you know, where you went to school and what your hobbies and assets are and what you do every day? Is the thrill worth the compromise?
At the same time, are you sure you want to give up email for Twitter. Can you say as much in 140 characters? Can you be as thoughtful and expressive? Sure it’s concise, but there’s a loss in limiting your communication with others to abbreviated phrases like we used to read in the New York subway.
Remember “f u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb.” This was an ad posted in every subway car, and every bus too. I reading these coded abbreviations over and over during my subway rides, but at the end of the day there wasn’t much information or useful English there. They seem to hasten the end of the language.
Perhaps social networks are the true wave of the future. If 500 million kids grow up and make new friends with it, then certainly they will be popular in that generation. Already the people who have figured out the rules of moving the masses have found a way to unprecedented money and power.
I suppose the smart guys will dive in and become expert in social networks on the basis that they will somehow lose ground without it. But will it do us, or our language or society, any good. Will it make our social experiences better or riskier? Is this the kind of transparency we really want?
Your 140 characters may not reinvent Shakespeare, but they do tell the world, and the science fiction thought police, what you are thinking. Doesn’t that make you even a little nervous? The North Woods, and even the solitude of Walden Pond, seem so much more unrecapturable now.
I’m really interested to see how the class reacts.