Monday, January 18, 2010

Schnarch's Writings Applied to the Age of Social Networking

It's been a while since I've made mention of Schnarch in this space. I saw a post over at the New York Times blog Schott's Vocab that reminded me of his writings on two-choice dilemmas.

The term being discussed was e-ttenuation, which is attributed to Raymond Tallis. The post quotes an essay by Madeleine Bunting published in the Guardian:
... faced with such an abundance of interesting choices, there is a reluctance to commit and a provisionalism which promotes grazing, keeping options open. Above all, there is a paradigm of contractualism: relationships are measured by the question “what’s in it for me?”

When I read this, I heard echoes of Passionate Marriage (p.298):
None of us wants to face our dilemma(s) and choose one option over the other. Manic attempts to "do it all" maintain our secret fantasy that we can have it all -- and never have to face our anxiety. The 1960s free-love ethic that "it's unrealistic to expect one person to meet all your needs" subtly reassures us that we can have everything we want (all we have to do is spread our needs around several people). But decisions, commitments, friendship, and integrity only become meaningful in a world of finite options.

In Constructing the Sexual Crucible, Schnarch quotes Tristam Engelhardt:
(Friendship) is also a sacrifice. Since humans are not gods or goddesses, friendship entails the abandonment of other possibilities. Humans have limited resources of energy and time. The person who has a hundred friends has none, or is a god.

Perhaps once the craze over social networking websites has subsided, we will interpret it as a period where society was seduced by the connectivity of the web into believing that friendship could be as free as love was thought to be back in the 60s.

I sense that the seeds of disillusionment with social networking sites are beginning to take root.

In late December, the New York Times published an article about high schoolers making a pact to reduce Facebook dependency.

Then word broke out about a parody site called the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. The virality of the site is a hint that there are good number people who are ready to unplug.

Finally, Bunting's own remarks point to another issue with social networking:
It is not technology per se at fault, but how it is used, and in particular how it combines with another equally powerful phenomenon – commercialisation; the assessment that everyone and everything has a price. It is the two combined which I would argue are so corrosive to our capabilities to create and sustain relationships of depth and durability.

It's not just person-to-person relationships that are commercialized. The site itself commercializes on a relationship of its own, just as Danah Boyd writes in her blog apophenia:
Let's take this scenario for a moment. Bob trust Alice. Bob tells Alice something that he doesn't want anyone else to know and he tells her not to tell anyone. Alice tells everyone at school because she believes she can gain social stature from it. Bob is hurt and embarrassed. His trust in Alice diminishes. Bob now has two choices. He can break up with Alice, tell the world that Alice is evil, and be perpetually horribly hurt. Or he can take what he learned and manipulate Alice. Next time something bugs him, he'll tell Alice precisely because he wants everyone to know. And if he wants to guarantee that it'll spread, he'll tell her not to tell anyone.

Facebook isn't in the business of protecting Bob. Facebook is in the business of becoming Alice. Facebook is perfectly content to break Bob's trust because it knows that Bob can't totally run away from it. They're still stuck in the same school together. But, more importantly, Facebook *WANTS* Bob to twist Facebook around and tell it stuff that it'll spread to everyone. And it's fine if Bob stops telling Facebook the most intimate stuff, as long as Bob keeps telling Facebook stuff that it can use to gain social stature.

Why? No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of "free." It's in Facebook's economic interest to force people into being public, even if a few people break up with Facebook in the process.

Perhaps this exploitation of relationships will be what drags the collective consciousness into the crucible.

The shrinking number of active bloggers that once were counted among my unspoken social graph is also evidence of this fatigue. It's hard at times for me to imagine just how many posts I read and wrote during 2006 and 2007. Now I can go for days and weeks without corresponding with these erstwhile net friends, perhaps validating just how easily friendships can dissolve online.

Still, I don't think the friends I made writing here could be discarded purely as shallow. Indeed, the conversations we had online were deeper than what is usually found on a Facebook wall. We were struggling with big questions on our relationships, perhaps things that we weren't ready to share with friends in our real lives. As for me, it was more of a testament about the lack of depth in my real-life friendships, which I let subside horribly during the deterioration of my marriage.

What matters now is that I continue to work on building real life friendships where I can be my authentic self, finally accepting that by living in the real, I must let go of the promise of many for the rewards of deeper, and fewer, friendships.
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