Saturday, February 6, 2010

Multi-friending? Social Multi-tasking?

Just to round out a week in which multitasking unexpectedly emerged as a recurrent issue, a further thought inspired by a piece in the New York Review of Books. Charles Petersen discusses two recent books on Facebook and MySpace. Both recount the histories of the social networking sites and the review focuses on the class-based origins of Facebook at Harvard and the more working-class ethos of MySpace. It's an appropriate approach to social networking and one that Petersen develops with insight. More implicitly, the review underscores the importance of capturing and analyzing the history of digital communities and social interaction, which for many seem utterly ephemeral. It's sobering to realize that the establishment of both MySpace and Facebook (or at least Mark Zuckerberg's initial attempt, Facemash) occurred only in 2003.

Where Petersen ends, though, and ultimately why the review relates to multitasking, is with a question about the nature of "friends" that are made and maintained on these networks. We may have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of "friends," but what is the level of intimacy or sustained interaction we share with them? While the news has recently focused on Facebook's privacy policy, the better question may be how communication on the site allows friends to share or to hide aspects of themselves. "We have turned [our friends] into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud," William Deresiewicz is quoted as observing. "Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling." Is the parallel here to the quandary in digital learning of seeking abundance and novelty or avoiding depth and hard work? If so, the consequences of these technologies for society and interpersonal relations go far beyond class and warrant greater consideration from all of us.

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