Friday, June 1, 2012

Better Tool Wielding

The central thesis for a lot of my work lately is: now that all novelty has worn off the internet, how do we use this tool to enhance our real life interactions? It's an important question and one that I think the new generation of thinkers and makers of online worlds has to tackle. I had hoped to spend some time expounding on some of this at PPN Internet Week, but the emcee duties and fog-inducing levels of beer consumption kept my tongue in check. But I was reminded again today of this idea, and particularly how important things like PPN are to the new social web.

Readers of The Atlantic (good for you, by the way, but keep it to yourself) might have come across an article in the May issue by Stephen Marche titled Is Facebook Making us Lonely?. Spoiler alert: It's not, really, but it certainly isn't helping. Marche attempts to dissect the epidemic of loneliness in modern society and discover why, where and how strongly it correlates to the meteoric rise of social networking. There are a lot of startling facts and figures in the article that I won't bother regurgitating for you now, but if you're curious it's well-researched and a thoroughly engaging piece of writing.

What struck me most in the article came from John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and "the world's leading expert on loneliness."

"To Cacioppo, Internet communication allows only ersatz intimacy. 'Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,' he writes. 'But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.' The 'real thing' being actual people, in the flesh ... In one experiment, Cacioppo looked for a connection between the loneliness of subjects and the relative frequency of their interactions via Facebook, chat rooms, online games, dating sites, and face-to-face contact. The results were unequivocal. 'The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are.'"

This isn't a revelation, anyone could have guessed the results of that study before it started, but it hints at an essential failure of humanity. One of the things that sets us apart in the animal kingdom is our ability to make and wield tools to our incredible advantage. That and our puzzle-solving/story-telling is really all we have going for us. So why should we fail so utterly at wielding this awesome tool?

Later in the article he makes the analogy of a car, and it's an apt one. Cars, in general, make us lonelier because they encourage isolation. But that's not really true. They allow us isolation, but they could also allow for even greater interaction. We could, and usually do, use our cars to drive by ourselves and get further away from people. We could, alternatively, use cars to do things with our friends, or to get us closer to people that we might otherwise never get to see. Just as we could use Facebook to avoid real life interactions, we could also (should also) use it to engage our real life communities and reach out to a larger audience than we could through any other means and get them together IRL.

And that's what PPN is. At least, that's part of what PPN is, and it's what I hope it can become even more.

So here we are. It's an interesting point in the history of technology, broadly, and the history of the social internet specifically. We can accept these developments and just let the internet go the way of television. That is, we can let our social interactions dissolve into a passive consumption of sound-bytes and pictures of our friends' cats. We can, in Marche's words, allow that "the beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society - the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact." Or we can refuse that future. The real source of power, the one underlying that power, is the ability to instantly connect with anyone anywhere at any time. And that is a tool we can use. So, let's get together more. Let's embarrass ourselves, reveal too much and fart and spill drinks. Because with a tool like Facebook, it's not just my friends' and family that I get to do that with anymore. It's my friends and my friends' friends and people who randomly came across the PPN event invite who all get to see me get a little sloppy on some cheap beer and have serious conversations about every conceivable topic.

A Facebook invite for next month is forthcoming, and I hope to see you (like actually see you, with my own eyes) there. The drinks are on us.

- Andy Gillette