Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maybe There is a Reason We Lost Touch

I just learned from The Washington Post that, "Yahoo plans to announce Tuesday that it is jumping into social networking by using its massive population of e-mail subscribers as a base for sharing information on the Web."  I hate that.  Oh, I understand why they are doing it.  They are doing it for the same reason any media company has ever done anything - to make money.  They are, after all, companies formed for the purpose of making money - otherwise they would be non-profits.  I do not begrudge them that - but they have spoiled us with the free e-mail service.  They made us think it was our e-mail, now they want to "Facebookize" my e-mail so they can generate more advertising revenue.

I guess I am amazed by the fact that all these e-companies assume we want to share our lives with all the people to whom we send email - and, further, that we want to make it possible for people to whom we have never sent an email to find us and "friend" us through any of several "invasion by default" portals. Those include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yelp, Pandora, Classmates, etc., etc. - any website that makes information about us publicly available without having specifically received our permission to do so.

Here is the thing - there are reasons that we choose to affiliate with other individuals.  In our childhood our friends we most often determined by proximity that was determined by where our parents lived.  As we moved on with our lives we chose our own path, job, inclination, opportunity, lots of variables there.  But the point is that as we moved we tended to retain the contacts that were deeply important to us while others fell away from mutual neglect. Social media work from a different assumption: that we let relationships die that call out for resurrection.  I doubt it.

I blanked my Facebook profile last week.  But in the last couple of years I had received 10, maybe 15, "friend requests" from folks from my past.  My response has varied from "Oh, interesting," to "We never spoke in high school, why now?"  Most fell somewhere in between.  But the reality is that none of those contacts - even the interesting ones - have resulted in the renewal of friendships that were often tentative 30 or 40 years ago.

I realize that one's use of social media is probably generational to a certain extent.  If you have emailed or texted with your BFF all your life then sharing the details of your life electronically with a cluster of acquaintances may come more easily.  But I would assert that even the most dyed in the wool digital native would like to define those relationships by personal choice as opposed to letting your email client establish them as a "default setting."

And that, for me, is the unsettling issue.  I still believe that technology enables us, empowers us in wonderful ways.  Yet, we are subtly allowing that new power to be leached away to serve the economic goals of the Yahooians of the world. Letting Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter create our list of "Friends" is not unlike removing the front door to your home; it is no longer your prerogative to invite people, any wandering soul can just stroll in. As I said before, the friends of our childhood were determined by where our parents chose to live.  But, we're the adults now, right? We should get to choose.