Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Lonely Crowd

What’s the point of going on the Internet to do my social networking if the results are the same as in everyday life? After the initial excitement over the advent of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, there’s now a feeling that online social networking is a little like moving to another city or remarrying. Some people end up getting divorced and marrying the same person all over again—the end result being a loss of their net worth to the former spouse.

Facebook inspires hope due to the prospect of almost infinite connectivity. It’s also a little like going to a masked ball. Yes, everyone sees a face, but the cyber-self, cloaked in mystery, makes instant pundits out of all users. Twitter posts are nothing more than amateur fortune cookies.

The trouble is, the bottom line tends to be the same. The loud and domineering presences, the same ones who insensitively blustered their way to success in the real world, still prevail. Those blessed or cursed with a personality structure that is more subtle and/or reserved are relegated to obscurity in the online social networking jungle.

For Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Myanmar who is again under house arrest, Facebook and other social networking sites may eventually help to mobilize and organize resistance. There is no doubt that social networking’s future lies primarily as a vehicle of social change. That is in fact the paradox of the social networking phenomenon. It gives the illusion of exposing the self, but the impact it creates is chiefly facilitated when an individual becomes part of social group.

Neither Proust nor Kafka would have fared well on Facebook, but propagators of passive resistance like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela might very well have thrived. Though attention getting is the object, Facebook achieves it maximum effect when the face becomes part of the crowd.

As David Riesman pointed out in his classical sociological tome, The Lonely Crowd, it’s the “other directed” rather than the “inner directed” individual who will succeed in modern life. Riesman wrote his book in l950, before Mark Zuckerman, the founder of Facebook, was even a gleam in his grandparents’ eyes, but the same principles define what is transpiring in this newest Erewhon of social networking.

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