The New Atlantis – Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism – Christine Rosen

The New Atlantis

The structure of social networking sites also encourages the bureaucratization of friendship. Each site has its own terminology, but among the words that users employ most often is “managing.” The Pew survey mentioned earlier found that “teens say social networking sites help them manage their friendships.” There is something Orwellian about the management-speak on social networking sites: “Change My Top Friends,” “View All of My Friends” and, for those times when our inner Stalins sense the need for a virtual purge, “Edit Friends.” With a few mouse clicks one can elevate or downgrade (or entirely eliminate) a relationship.

To be sure, we all rank our friends, albeit in unspoken and intuitive ways. One friend might be a good companion for outings to movies or concerts; another might be someone with whom you socialize in professional settings; another might be the kind of person for whom you would drop everything if he needed help. But social networking sites allow us to rank our friends publicly. And not only can we publicize our own preferences in people, but we can also peruse the favorites among our other acquaintances. We can learn all about the friends of our friends–often without having ever met them in person.

This is written for a popular audience, so there is a lot of summary with few citations, but it’s still a good snapshot of social networking as a phenomenon. I strongly resist the idea that any one company (or a small number of companies) should have that much control over my ability to network. There was a time when I worked aggressively for status via my blog. While it is still a part of my professional identity, and still a part of the way I process events and trace emerging trends, I have become less directly interested in tracking the number of hits to my blog, and more interested in the collective effect of the academic blogs that I provide to my students.

Most of my first-semester freshman know all about Facebook and MySpace, but many had never heard the term “blog” before (or weren’t really able to define it).  I’ve learned to refer in general terms to “online participation” and a “class journal” so that they have some context before I hit them with a full-on techno assault on the day we introduce blogs.


But blogs are very different from profiles. I remember reading an
article somewhere that pointed out that in the early studies of WWW
culture, nobody detected a trend of behavior called “home-paging” even
though academic studies did examine personal home pages. But “blogging”
did turn out to be a recognizable, if shifting, concept, often defined
in terms most familiar to whoever was doing the defining (i.e. scholars
said blogging was a kind of online research journal, journalists said
it was a kind of citizen journalism, essayists said it was a form of
online expression, etc.). Still, the central focus of blogging is to
produce content on your own blog. Yes, a good blog has outbound links
that point readers away from the site, but like the Santa in Miracle on
34th Street, who gained loyal customers for Macy’s when he sent them to
other stores that could better meet their particular needs, the quality
of those outbound tips is often as valuable as the actual content.
Which is not to say that a Facebook Santa would be presiding over an
empty store, dispensing nothing but outbound links. Those links, or the
social cues that come from the numbers, association, rankings, and
statistics associated with those links, are valuable in themselves.

Young
children are perfectly happy with serial encounters with anonymous
playmates. Older kids develop friendships, but they can still play
perfectly well with kids they don’t know. Adults need to have structure
and the security of knowing there is some common bond — such as
cheering for the same team or the same political candidate — before
they can form these instant but anonymous bonds that serve the larger
group more than the individual (but which are nonetheless the key way
that the individual validates his or her connection to the group).

I’m still sick from my weekend fever, and as long as I’m lying down
with the keyboard on my lap I can type fairly comfortably, but I’m not
mentally astute enough at this point to try to look up scholarship on
adolescent friendships or adult interest in professional sports.