Anti-social Networking

This week, I did something tantamout to virtual suicide. I went through my social networking profiles and disabled, deactivated, or deleted most of them. After much consideration, it became clear that social networking sites were bad for my relationships, bad for for my social life, and generally bad for me.

Social networking sites are the high-fructose corn syrup of social interaction. High-fructose corn syrup in food is trouble for two reasons: it doesn't nourish you, nor does it fill you up. Similarly, social networking makes you feel like you're involved in another person's life, without providing the nourishing fulfillment meaningful interaction gives. You get a brief glimmer of fulfillment when you read a snippet of your friend's life, but it wears off quickly, leaving you needing more interaction. This means that you'll visit the site again, which is perfect for the provider: they get another set of ad views.

Don't believe me when I say it's less fulfilling? Let's try a thought experiment. You might get a brief burst of warm fuzzies when someone posts pictures of their newborn baby on facebook, but it's short-lived. Contrast this with someone walking around the office with cameraphone pictures of the same baby. There's a real difference in the quality of these two interactions: the in-person interaction is more affecting than the online one. There are myriad reasons for this, but the important thing is that the in-person, in-depth, in-excitement experience is much richer and more fulfilling than the mediated, short, distant experience of facebook.

Of course, high-fructose corn syrup is okay in moderation, when balanced out with something healthy. Enjoy a Coke when you go see a movie or are stuck in the airport. It's a nice thing, in balance. Similarly, social networking is fine if it's balanced out with more healthy interactions. That comes down to a sort of self-control, which is where I have a hard time, and what finally pushed me over the edge.

I'm a bit of a work-a-holic, having a hard time with work-life balance. I have an intense day job at a startup, where I'm a third of the engineering team. When I get home in the evening, I tinker on personal projects: more software, writing a book or two, and studying new things. I find a lot of satisfaction in these things, and therefore overdo it. In fact, I overdo it so much that my friends won't see me (in person) for weeks at a time. But they'll see my facebook status update every other day or so, "Josh looks forward to taking a day off," or "Josh is finally shipping his pet project!"

Social networking sites make it too easy to "work friends in" around your schedule. They're an enabler for this sort of thing, both in scheduling and perception. If I had to go to dinner to see my friends, I would make sure the few hours were well-spent, and connect with the other people. I might even stop thinking about work for a while. Social networking sites, however, reduce the cost of socializing, which is a great thing for keeping in vague touch with people. Unfortunately, this reduces the perceived value of relationships: there's less social capital invested in these short bursts of activity. This, in turn, makes them less seem meaningful to the participants.

The perception of value is a funny thing. In dating, there's a reason people play hard to get. It's the same reason that food you cooked yourself tastes better. Somewhere in the back of our brains, there's a tiny beancounter, keeping track of how much time, money, and emotion we've put into things. This little accountant isn't always rational or consistent, but generally, the more you put into a thing, the more valuable you find it. By reducing the cost of relationships, social networking sites accidentally trick us into thinking our relationships are less valuable.

Of course, often the relationships are less valuable. It is possible to hold truly deep and meaningful discussions with people online. It's a great medium for this, just as television is a great medium for teaching people. In television, you can show animated graphs, moving diagrams, and demonstrate experiments, all with expository notes (think Mythbusters). What's television actually used for? Fear Factor, Maury Povich, and so on. Similarly, social networking sites don't typically make good use of the medium. They encourage lots of short interactions, which are really great for ad revenue, but are terrible for meaningful connections.

Some sites are better than others for this, and allow you to grow a group of really great friends. This, though, also poses a problem. There's always someone out there to listen and offer advice. Therefore, you never have to think for yourself. Which means you never make your own decisions/mistakes in a vacuum. And, correspondingly, you're never forced into full independence. Collaboration is a great tool for developing new ideas, but it might not be the best thing for one's internal life, as it tends to encourage this sort of promiscuous codependency.

Now that the accounts are closed and the bookmarks are deleted, what do I do next? First, I set up a public Google Calendar. Josh's Google Calendar is a good first approximation of whether or not I'm busy at a given time. It's also a good motivator, reminding myself of the fact that I haven't seen people in X days, and maybe I should get out more.

Next, it's time to really clean up my house, so I feel confident in having people around more often. The war on slightly embarassing dustbunnies is nigh. After that, it's time to start collecting people's phone numbers. Along with this, I need to get better about calling people to hang out more often.

Maybe I should just create a new event on facebook and invite everyone.