by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Internet”

The Pitfalls and Pleasures of Social Networking

Posted 30 June 2008 in by Catriona

I never thought I’d be particularly attached to social networking sites.

I’ve never had much of a social network, for a start. And moving in my early twenties to a strange city one thousand kilometres away broke most of my established networks. So I was never really in the position where I was keeping in contact with hundreds of people across the globe.

And then I’ve never had much interest in that aspect of the Internet—I say, on my blog. But, then, this blog is really indicative of that shift in my thinking.

Prior to a couple of years ago, I regarded the Internet as a large, unwieldy, badly written and appallingly edited, mostly inaccurate encyclopaedia. That is, I went to it for information, which I then largely mistrusted. I never treated it as something to which I might contribute, or as somewhere I could go to interact with friends.

Of course, I was already reliant on e-mail, as the primary way of keeping in contact with students and colleagues. I know people—Kurt Vonnegut is one who springs to mind—complain about the impersonal nature of e-mail, but I think it’s fabulous: I once contacted a museum in England about possible access to some material—a nineteenth-century theatrical poster—in their collection, and received a reply e-mail with a high-resolution image attached three hours later. You won’t find me complaining about e-mail.

But I think it was really Pownce that changed my general attitude.

I came to Pownce fairly late compared to others in my social group—which, good little geeks that we are, had been using it on an invitational basis before it went public—but it rapidly became a site where I could keep up an intermittent chatter during the workday without actually interrupting my work to any great extent. As one friend said, it’s like sharing a virtual office with people you actually like.

But from Pownce it was a short step to Facebook. And I don’t regret my Facebook account: I keep my privacy settings locked down, don’t add any questionable applications, and limit my Friends list to people I actually know. (Although I don’t thank Facebook for turning “friend” into a verb—but the issue of verbing is a whole separate issue, for another post.) Facebook is the only way I keep in contact with a number of friends, and the primary way (apart from phone calls and reading each other’s blogs) that I keep in contact with my best friend: it’s easy and fun to send short messages through the day.

Plus, Facebook means Packrat, and we all know how I feel about Packrat.

With e-mail, Pownce, and Facebook already becoming part of a daily ritual, it was a short step to actually starting a blog. That’s a simplified explanation of the process, but largely accurate.

So now I have my webmail provider, Pownce, Facebook, and my blog open in my web browser each day. I don’t have to, of course—I could simply keep my browser closed until I need to Google something. But what’s the point of being socially networked if the network isn’t available?

But today—today I was going to be virtuous. And I was, largely; I wrote nearly one thousand words of a putative journal article on manipulation and verisimilitude in adapted plays on the nineteenth-century suburban stage.

But I was also enmeshed in the toils of the social network.

No significant e-mails came in today, but at one point this afternoon I was trying to map out a structure for the first part of the article, chatting to a friend via the instant-messaging function on Facebook (that ended abruptly: I may have offended him when I suggested that it was nonsense to say that a French-English dictionary was boring), taking part in a six-party discussion on Pownce about whether we can get a Dungeons and Dragons group together, and trying to attract Nick’s attention on another Pownce thread so he could buy me two volumes of a rare Victorian periodical that had suddenly popped up for sale on the American Book Exchange.

(Why, yes: I am a woman of varied tastes.)

Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are you were involved in one of those discussions, which is one of the downsides of being closely networked to a relatively small social group.

(Downside for you, I mean: I have no problem saying the same thing four different times, and will, in fact, talk to the furniture if there’s no one else available.)

Don’t get me wrong; I love my social network. A day when I can chat to so many people in so many different ways that I don’t have to hold an animated, if one-sided, discussion with an armchair is a good day.

But it does reinforce the perils of social-networking programmes: sometimes, if your self control is weak and your propensity for conversation strong, you just have to shut your browser down and work, bereft, outside the network for a while.

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