Social engineering

A few weeks ago I had a message from one of the popular social networking websites of which, for some reason, I’ve found myself a member. The message stated that someone wanted to be my friend – someone whose name I recognised. I read the message and for a brief moment was happy that this person had contacted me after several years.

But then I read the message carefully and realised something was wrong. It was an automated message; there was nothing personal in it at all. My friend, who I haven’t spoken too in a few years, simply pressed a button and a series of digital widgets started the process to make us “friends”.

It would be easy to blame my friend, but he’s only doing what thousands if not millions of people are doing every day. These social networking sites make it very easy to create these digital connections, and the very fact that the numbers of friends that a user has on these sites is displayed turns it into a kind of competition. Remember, human beings are by nature competitive – it’s how we’ve survived for tens of thousands of years. But online social networking websites, on the whole, are putting quantity above quality when it comes to relationships.

The fact is that social networking is a poor substitute for real, tangible friendships. Can anyone really have hundreds or thousands of friends with whom they have a meaningful relationship? I doubt it, even if you discount a large percentage as being the online equivalent of those people you know by sight but wouldn’t necessarily say more than “alright?” to them if you saw them in the street.

The problem lies in the glut of information available online about people. If you’re a fully committed member of a social networking site then the chances are you’ve added details such as your name, age, sex, location, education, likes, dislikes, recent experiences and much more. That will be all there in searchable, copyable format, possibly in the public domain. Rather than evenings spent chatting and comparing upbringings over a few pints, you can get to know the basics about someone by reading an online crib sheet on them without ever having met them. In my view that doesn’t make for quality friendships, but rather shallow connections.

You may think I’m entirely against social networking sites, but that is far from the truth. I’m a big believer in the Internet acting as the conduit along which real relationships can be forged and grow. After all, I’ve created several social networking sites and I continue to write on this blog which invites comments from any reader. However I do believe that any online system can only act as one of the threads tying people together in friendship. While the global nature of the Internet means that friendships can occur across potentially insurmountable physical distances, the danger is that physical distance will mean emotional distance as well.

Anyone can create a profile on the Internet and with judicious writing and careful management present a “face” to the Internet which is entirely incorrect. That’s not unheard of in the physical world, of course, but it’s a whole lot easier to do online. So your collection of hundreds of friends may contain duds, and who knows how many?

In the past I’ve not been as careful as I might have with what I have said online. Even with the most rudimentary searching skills it’s possible to find things I’ve written going back over 10 years, not all of it necessarily words I would endorse now. On the whole, however, I’ve been careful about what connections I make – and many of my online friends I’ve met in person several times. Bearing in mind my recent experiences with the friend-who-nearly-was I’m going to continue to be careful who I forge relationships with online. Perhaps the word “friend” should not be bandied around so lightly.

5 thoughts on “Social engineering

  1. Very good post. Though I also use a particular social-networking site.

    I tend to use the word ‘friend’ very restrictively, for I believe it means similar to what you have written above.

  2. That’s probably a wise outlook. In the past I’ve been a lot more liberal with my use of the word, possibly because there aren’t many alternatives in English. For example, “acquaintance” sounds too posh and informal.

    Maybe we need a new word inventing to describe this new type of networked contact.

  3. You are write about “aquaintance” Chris; I used it once or twice and people gave me a look to say, “Have you dropped in from the 17th century?”

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