Friendship, Community and Knowledge in a CMC World

I just had a discussion with my dissertation committee about issues concerning personal blogs and how we define knowledge. We also discussed the debates regarding whether or not community can be established online, followed by a brief discussion of micro-blogging (Twitter and Facebook). So, it was interesting to see an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education linking to an article discussing these very issues.

The article, “Faux Friendship”, left me with a sense of dismay. I had just been talking about how personal experience is important knowledge, how community can be built online and successfully sustained, and how even micro-blogging provides us with a sense of connection to others. William Deresiewicz disagrees, falling under the umbrella of critics like Clay Calvert who refer to practices such as reading and writing blogs as “mediated voyeurism” and “mediated exhibitionism” respectively.  After a lengthy [which will be evidenced by my many quotations] discussion of the history and evolution of how we define friendship, Deresiewicz asserts that as a result of computer-mediated-communication, such as Facebook

the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

and that

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls.

Oh, chicken little, the sky is not falling! It seems so crazy that these same diatribes continue to be written. Sing me a new one, will ya?

To give Deresiewicz credit, he does provide an interesting historical perspective, provides us with information about the evolution of friendships and community, and links it to cultural change. This is certainly a nice break from the usual bemoaning of the loss of “real” world interaction and the evils of technology. But those who fear that technology will be the end of things that we value are repeating the same refrain that we’ve heard for centuries. When the telephone was invented, people feared that we’d no longer talk in person.

The advent and increased use of the internet may seem to be a new fear but is really only a reinvention (pardon the pun) of an old one. People have always worried that technological advancements will cause irreperable harm. In actuality (or at least in my opinion), it is that we evolve as people, as cultures and societies, and our tools evolve with us. Or, perhaps more accurately, we evolve in tandem with one another. It’s more of an iterative process than a static exchange. Fearing or hating change doesn’t make it stop, nor should we want it to. Growth is a beautiful thing, and we must make choices to determine how that growth affects us. In other words, I don’t believe that we are cogs in a machine over which we have no power.

Interestingly enough, Deresiewicz doesn’t seem to have a problem with email. (Providing further evidence that we grow and adapt as technology changes.) In fact, he says

The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. “hola cutie-pie! i’m in town on wednesday. lunch?” “Julie, I’m so glad we’re back in touch. xoxox.” “Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now.” Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope? [emphasis mine]

and again

I thought that Facebook would help me feel connected to the friends I’d left behind. But now I find the opposite is true. Reading about the mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera, leaves me feeling both empty and unpleasantly full, as if I had just binged on junk food, and precisely because it reminds me of the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face. [emphasis mine]

What, pray tell, is “real knowledge”? When we chat on the phone or see each other in the street, don’t we talk about mundanities, the minutiae of our lives? Why is it such a problem that we share this with multiple friends while online? How does this constitute “exhibitionism”?

A further claim that concerns me is

Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. […] So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. […] Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition.

This seems presumptuous. Has it “falsified our understandings” or has it changed them? What is the distinction and how does the author make it. Are information and experience mutually exclusive? Have we really “given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.” Is this really “[t]he face of friendship in the new century.”? Or is chicken little screaming his head off again?