I read this article in the Mail on Sunday yesterday and it got me thinking about a few things.
The article recounts how a guy from Oxford told a girl in America that he was going to “do something I’ve been thinking about for a while then everyone will find out“, after speculating about suicide. She managed to contact the British authorities and ultimately saved the boy.
Aside from the obvious human aspect of the story – and indeed everyone from the girl in America to the Thames Valley officers that found the lad did a fantastic thing – there is perhaps a much broader story of how social networking sites do manage to provide just that – a social space. Much of what is written about facebook, MySpace, Bebo and the like is almost always derogatory. Whilst I was looking for the online copy of that article, I came across another facebook mentioning article by Janet Street-Porter. This article (and the others of which this exemplifies) seem to stem from a very simple fallacy:
Facebook friends ≠ real friends
Once you come to understand that it isn’t about conversing with a myriad of random people then the whole thing makes a lot more sense. I don’t want anyone to be able to access information on me, but it is useful for my friends to be able to look up my phone number etc.
Notice that I am not classifying where these friends come from. Real friends may indeed be known only from the internet, but if they have achieved friend status then why not converse with them over the internet. It is a darn sight cheaper than phoning people long-distance.
The other criticism is that people are losing social skills by conversing primarily over the internet. Again, an accusation I find hard to take. By the very act of making conversation you are using and developing social skills, regardless of situation. It is much harder to make yourself understood in a text-based conversation that in a face-to-face one, as expression and intonation is lost. This means a text-based message must have even greater clarity of phrase than when spoken, and makes it harder to keep the other parties interested.
Clearly I am not saying the same social skills are used and developed, but equally I think that this quote “ I worry that millions of others – and especially the young – may be losing the social skills they need to lead fulfilled lives, hold down a job and communicate effectively and honestly with their partners” is a little over the top. And besides, potentially they are gaining a new set of skills needed to lead fulfilled lives.
To quickly conclude (for I have spent far too much time and effort on this), I think that social networking sites, far from leading to a generation of socially-inept, will lead to a socially savvy generation. Also, I think the popular definintion of “friend” needs to move away from the “face-to-face” concept. It is perfectly possible to have friends you have never met, as friendship is about actions (to sound a tad cliche). I don’t think anyone could say that girl in the US wasn’t acting as a friend to that boy, by listening to what he said and raising the alarm.