Thursday, June 10, 2010

Internet Friends

"We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people."  --Pierre Omidyar

I was listening to the radio. I don't normally do this. I prefer to make my own music selections and don’t enjoy the advertising that necessitates channel flipping. Even rarer, it was a station with yappy DJs. Yes, they are occasionally funny – kind of like a broken clock is right twice a day – but mostly they are trying. Between the annoyingly compressed pieces of music, these particular DJs were discussing a news story about someone who did something or other online. I believe the person in question posted a video to You Tube or something similar. What the person did is inconsequential. Why she did it – for her 'Internet friends' – is important.

I would not have taken note of this at all had not one of the DJs made an aside, filled with as much derision and sarcasm as he could muster (very little, actually – the attempt being worthy of perhaps three stars), about this person's supposed 'Internet friends'.  His exact words were: "Internet friends. Those aren’t real friends. People who have real friends don’t have Internet friends."

I found this interesting. And it made me very aware that those DJs are old farts who merely pretend to be cool.

And I don't say this just because I happen to have a lot of 'Internet friends'.

I say it because I think it reveals a distrust of and a prejudice against new media. And most interestingly, this criticism, so artfully enunciated in just such a way as to make Mr. DJ sound like an ass, is the latest manifestation of a very old fear. Each new form of communication threatens the ones before, if only by being a possible replacement.  And people are uncomfortable with change. Especially the old farts.

Think I'm exaggerating about it being just another transmutation of an old prejudice? Plato, in his dialogue the Phaedrus, assembles a salvo of arguments against the written word. Yep, for the ancient Greek, writing was dreadful and would end life as he knew it. He feared that writing, in comparison to speech, would lead to forgetfulness.  And in a very real way he was right. We do not have to rely on just our memories. But how bad of a thing is this?

One component of almost any new technology is its potential to undermine a way of life. Even if that way of life may not have been the best, our fluency with it makes it familiar and comfortable. It is far easier to point to aspects of new media that are not like the old media – even when, ironically, this might be just the point – than to look at the new qualities that the new technologies can confer upon us.

Writing makes us forgetful. Telephones make us impersonal. Instant Messaging makes us illiterate.

Back to 'Internet friends'. The forms of communication that the Internet now provides, be it Email (a relatively old new technology), Facebook, Twitter, 4-Square or uncountable others, are tools. And we can use tools to our advantage or our detriment. I have no doubt that there are people who use the anonymity of online communications to remain sheltered and isolated. But the true power of these new technologies is our expanded ability to reach out to others and form meaningful, reciprocal relationships.

I have 'Internet friends' I have met in real life. And I have 'Internet friends' I know I will never meet. The quality of my relationships is not driven by the medium of communication, but in the content of that communication.