My dads controversial theories about the negative effects of social media platforms on the dynamic nature of human connection in the modern era - A Recollection
All this started on a Saturday night, with a visit to my parents house. I caught up my dad on the happenings in my life of the past fortnight, my recent dates and the inherent flakiness of people (a recurring theme in our discussions).
He goes on to theorise about the negative impacts of large social networks and “event planning” functionality in particular, whereby people can create small groups with event information, invite their friends and organise the event. It typically includes a calendar of all nearby events friends have organised and been invited to.
The fact everyone can see who is going and who is not going to any event means that other people are disinclined to go based on premature judgement of how the party is going to “pan out” based purely on the persons invited and the ratio of strangers to friends.
My dad said this is something that simply did not happen before the internet, social media has eliminated the inherent randomness of chance encounters.
By not attending one party, a person misses the opportunity to create connections and meet people and who also happen to be attending this event. By not making those connections, a persons chance to get invited to more events is reduced. My dad goes on to describe - rather vividly, which came as a surprise - how news about parties would spread when he was teenager (at a time where mobile phones did not exist).
We are from a small town (some 3000 population). On weekends with nothing to do, people would just hang out in public at a water feature in downtown (which is similar to an outdoor shopping centre but more rural and less busy). At first it would be one person, just standing there or sitting on the knee-tall wall surrounding the water feature. What to do in this situation in the 80s?
Light a cigarette and smoke.
During those 10 minutes, somebody else would drive past on their scooter, see the first person smoking near the water feature and simply join in. The conversation goes something like this.
“Shit, what do we do? It’s saturday and nothing to do…”
“Here’s a cigarette.”
An then they’d both smoke. In our home town back in the 80s, it was commonplace for teenagers to ride around on scooters (low power motorbikes). All nearby towns are villages were accessible by scooter and teenagers would seldomly need to venture farther.
As they smoked, a third person would see them, by pure coincident, and the conversation would go on.
“What do we do?”
“Theres a party in Schorborn, everybody is going.”
Dad said that if you are not invited, you bring a carton of beer and you will be invited. You would drive to the liquor store on your scooter, do a quick round to all your friends houses and then head to Schorborn (nearby village).
This is how news would spread and information was exchanged in a time before mobile comunication and the internet (in a small town of 3000). A common argument is that the internet has provided a means to discover more events easily. My dad made a point to say that they did not necessarily attend fewer events just because the information was not presented via the internet. News would spread quite organically via word of mouth.
My dad continued, at those sort of partise, existing friendships get stronger and new friends will be made. You meet your core network and then some new people from your network’s network. There may be one person you meet at this party and they turned out to be excellent drinking and shit-talking buddies. How did you meet them? Pure chance.
Next time around, you receive a direct invite from them about a party in Negenborn. You meet your mates at a rusty water feature and spread the news yourself. The single core idea is that word of mouth is powerful but at the mercy of each individual node of a network to pass it along. These days, people don’t talk because everybody is seemingly “connected” online. If people would just talk and do things. Social networking becomes very difficult without chance encounters and actually meeting people face to face. You enter a bubble that may turn stale on you at any moment because no new seeds and connections are introduced.
Truth is, everybody has social network. It consists of yourself and your direct friends, your work collegues, your immediate family, and your aquaintencaces. These people in your life form ever evolving networks of dynamic connections, which may interweave into other networks, break into and split apart, merge, coexist, or barely hold on to another by a single thread (a single connecting node or mututal friend).
This highly dynamic sequence of chance encounters makes real-life social networking so powerful and a necessity.
My dad is the last generation of teenagers who rode around on petrol scooters. His generation’s entire natural living space occured in the range of 30 square kilometers defined (arbitrarily) by their scooter’s milage and therefore tank capacity.
Having a mobile phone in your pocket creates the illusion of connectedness. Subconsiously, this influences our behaviour, resulting in fewer chance encounters and isolation. The dawn of social networking manifested this illusion as a part of modern life to a point where I myself do not recognise the truth.
I thought about that for moment before asking my dad one final question. “Any more theories about social networks?” “Nope”, he casually put down an empty bottle, “but that’s how we did it before the internet… Today everyone hides behind their passwords and screens and people don’t communicate anymore or nearly enough.”