Hidden in Plain Sight: Of Barns and Social Networks

by Michele DeSilva, Library

I reluctantly signed up for a Facebook account in 2008 at the urging of some college friends.  I thought I’d hate it; I actually love it.  While I’ve been “friended” by the usual barrage of people from the past with whom I have only a tenuous connection, at best, I’ve also managed to keep in closer touch with family and friends who are scattered across the country and the globe (South Carolina, Japan, Africa, Iowa).  Even though I have come to love it, I still have an acute sense of the shortcomings of this particular medium as a means of communication and as a social construction.    

One of my favorite books is White Noise, by Don DeLillo.  Though originally published in 1985, it remains a perceptive view of the modern information society – the modern information society being one in which we are constantly “connected” to one another via various forms of technology.  One of the most humorous passages in the book concerns a trip that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, and his friend, Murray, both college professors, take to the “most photographed barn in America.”  Rather than viewing the barn and photographing it themselves, Jack and Murray disconnect from the scene at hand and display an almost exclusive interest in the other people there who are photographing the barn and, who, because they are so busy taking pictures, never really see the barn, either.  After a philosophical exchange about the phenomenon they are observing, Murray concludes, “We are not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one…We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.”

 barnI think we could say the same thing of the numerous social networks to which many of us belong – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace – we’re not there to communicate so much as to maintain the semblance of communicating, of “connectivity,” as William Deresiewicz writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education – and we’ve all agreed to be a part of the collective chatter, tweets (a Twitter update), and wall postings.  As someone with a deep interest in information and communication and how the two affect society, I often find myself wondering:  what is the overall effect of all of these social networks on our relationship with the real world?  Or, to phrase it in White Noise terms, what about the barn that is the focal point of all those images?

One major effect of the use of social networks is the strain they add to our already information-laden lives.  Why do we subject ourselves to having to keep track of everyone’s mundane thoughts and daily routines via their Facebook statuses or “tweets”?  Clive Thompson, in the New York Times Magazine answers this question by explaining the phenomenon of “ambient awareness,” a process by which we gradually piece together these random bits and pieces of information about the people we know (or don’t know, as the case may be) to create a sense of that person’s identity.  But, the status updates and tweets that many people post in social networks are highly stylized versions of their mundane lives; we do not know the person (especially those people we don’t see everyday) so much as the person’s self-created version of him or herself, as best transmitted 140 characters or so at a time. 

 social network
The relationships developed via social networks, thus, are not always grounded in reality.  Researchers have discovered that the relationships developed via social networks are “parasocial,” similar to the relationships people form with characters in their favorite television shows or celebrities; that is, people feel like they know the person being portrayed, even though all they really know is the public character.  Real relationships are perhaps somewhat obscured by these illusory relationships, just as the most photographed barn in America is obscured by the people photographing it. 

Alternatively, Erika Gordon, in the online journal First Monday, explores the nature of social “performance” in online networks and suggests that the relationships in social networks may serve as laboratories for real world relationships.  Because the demands on our time and attention are so great, we use social networks to “’try out’ emotional engagement and intimacy before dedicating massive social and personal resources to strong ties.”  

The great irony of needing to “try out” relationships with social media is that our lack of time and attention is partially due to all of the various media that require our attention.  We simply seem to have no time to think anymore.  Because we “have” to keep up with so much stuff, our attention span has shrunk.  This also has its effects on society.  For example, a group of scientists at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute  recently discovered that people need more time to process and respond to news stories that require the activation of such emotions as empathy and compassion.  People getting the bulk of their news from online feeds and social networking spent less time processing the stories and thinking about the ethical ramifications of current events.  One of the study’s authors points out the potential impact of these findings on our roles as citizens:  “We need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass.” 

While social networks certainly have their benefits, it’s clear that we need to think more thoroughly about how we use them and how they contribute to our participation in and creation of real society  and the “collective perception” of “connectivity” rather than the real thing.  So, please add your comments about social networking to the blog post.  I’d love to know what you think about online social networks and society (and, no, the irony of writing about this as a blog topic, meant to be spread across an online social network has not been lost on me).  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go update my Facebook status.


4 Responses to Hidden in Plain Sight: Of Barns and Social Networks

  1. I loved the article. Thanks for posting it. I am fascinated with the need of so many people to be connected all the time. My daughter actually wears her cell phone around her neck.

    I personally do not have that need and in fact love to be in a space where I cannot be reached. I do not have a cell phone and when the time finally comes to get one, I hope I keep it at home or in my office, but not in between.

    I do have a facebook account which has been fun to hear from people from my past and share photographs.

    I wonder if this constant “communication” is really keeping us connected, or if it is keeping us from becoming connected. There is certainly a huge difference between texting, e-mailing, or even calling and sitting in someone’s living room or back deck.

  2. Lisa Richards says:

    I appreciate your post. I am a self-proclaimed Facebook junkie. In fact, I was looking for the quick response to your message by selecting the “like” box, stating my affirmative response without actually using words to convey my thoughts. It doesn’t make my affirmative response any less “real”, but I certainly get what you are talking about. I think that my being a multi-tasker (to the point of ridiculous) allows me to keep track of current events (as much as I ever did) while maintaining 8 million cyber-relationships, give or take. But there is something I would be remiss not to mention….lovely barn. Wish I could have been there without my camera.

  3. Huckster says:

    I really enjoyed your post because it ties in to what I’ve been thinking about. I’m not sure about your definition of these two words: “communication” and “reality.” Does reality mean “emobodied physical presence”? Are you saying that letter writing does not a “real” relationship make? Also, what about the idea that communication is “a transactional process of sharing meaning with others.” Does not having a specific target for a message make it meaningless? what does that then say about public speaking! Ack!

  4. Tom Barry says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking posting. Technology is a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks. Much of the press, and American culture in general, celebrates any new technology as a breakthrough that will further liberate us from the simple mechanical devices of the past. As a result, we turn technology into something to consume instead of something to figure out how to best use.

    Goffman, the symbolic interactionist who provided an analysis of the “presentation of everyday life,” directly relates to the various points you make regarding folding emerging technologies into our private lives. Specifically, Goffman studied patients in a mental health treatment facility and identified that those who were most “sane” understood the rules of the game on how to interact in public space. With more people having greater ability today in creating their own private space while living and breathing in public space, we are changing not only the ways we connect, but also what we’re looking for in connecting with family, friends, and the person whose path we happen to cross.

    Thanks for the great references.


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