There are a fair number of people I know who think social networks of various types are going to help us out with the challenges we face in the future. While I see their point — and am myself a participant in a number of these networks — I’m not quite as definitive.
Indeed, there are moments when I think these have been a bad move, not progress in any way, but a true regress.
My reason for saying this is that I look at the ethics surrounding social network members. Increasingly, people seem to accept “friendship” on a social network (a connection, if you will) not because this is someone they want to connect to as a person, but simply because the connection may be useful some day.
If this isn’t treating the other person as an object, I’m having trouble figuring out what is.
I’ve had people insist, for instance, on LinkedIn and Naymz, first that I connect with them and second that I write a “recommendation” of them. But the person, in this case, is not a former colleague, subordinate, superior or client. They’re someone who was at a company I was at, but years later, and half-way around the planet to boot. To say I don’t know them! is an understatement. Yet to refuse them is to get a follow-up message demanding that I “do them this favour”, typically from someone else who can act as a bridge to spread a little guilt about my not doing it. LinkedIn also comes with groups, messages requesting answers to questions and the like. If you’re (as I have been) paid for problem solving, these represent not only a time sink, but (and far more important) the expectation that I’ll “work for nothing” because the interrogator “has a need”.
Then there’s the people who’ve, on Twitter, decided to follow me for no better reason than to sell to me, or to retweet what I post along with their own message (that I don’t endorse). I spend more time these days blocking people like this than I do reading what those people I do know and care about (personally or professionally) put up online.
Facebook, of course, allows people who barely know you exist to plague you with requests to join causes (theirs, not mine), play games (their kind, not mine), etc. I tend to be a little more tolerant of this here, since I’m aware that this was Facebook’s original purpose — and that I, too, play group games on Facebook and thus have indicated, to my fellow players, some level of interest.
Facebook’s own incessant advertising sponsoring messages I don’t want to see (and can’t make go away, as I can “suggestions” from friends or even from Facebook itself — the “you haven’t talked to Jane Doe lately, send her a message” type) based on Facebook’s analysis of “what might interest me” indicates a different kind of plague, but then the service is free and must be paid for somehow. I may not understand why I get advertising for Montréal facilities (I haven’t been in Montréal in over a decade) and services, but then, there’s no click-through there, either. It can be lived with.
There has never been a communications mechanism that isn’t used in ways that betray respect for the individual person, or who treat the person as an object for manipulation rather than as another human being with their own subjective states. “Watson, come here, I need you” turned into dinner hour telemarketing calls bypassing the “do not call” registry because they come from organizations I already do business with claiming an implicit “prior approval to receive the call”. (That they do this after barraging me with the multiple question routine required by the Protection of Electronic Documents and Personal Information laws is utterly and completely ridiculous — about as ridiculous as all other attempts to stem the flow of communication have been.)
What is truly annoying, however, is that if I expend all the on-going effort to police these various channels and sites, weeding out the unwanted communiqués and requests to join, and the like, is that too many people who ought to pass muster as the types of connections, or “friends”, these services are created for, such as people you once worked with, people who were once clients, etc., are themselves “posing” in public rather than being themselves. (Or, perhaps, this really is who they became, in which case breaking the connection beckons!)
If social networks are ever to do what their proponents claim they can do to change our world, we’re going to have to seriously re-form (in the sense of reshaping the moral fibre of) their users.
The high quality of comments appearing on this blog — and I include all the ones I personally didn’t agree with when I say this — is indicative of what a social network promises, but doesn’t deliver. I know my interlocutors here don’t share all my moral convictions or ethical stances. They do remember that behind the words lies a person (as I try to, too, when reading their words). It makes for learning and growth potential to do so.
A few people doing that is far more powerful, in the long run, than any number of hundreds of thousands who join an electronic “fan page” or “group”, just as a well-thought out recommendation with a specific situation spoken of is far more helpful than having hundreds of the things collected that sum up to “arm twisted: ‘great’ guy!”.
Earlier in this post, I used the phrase “if social networks are ever to do …”, but, of course, software does nothing without the humans who put it to work. So, if social networks are ever to live up to their proponents’ vision of what they could accomplish in changing the world, it is up to each of us to use them with careful attention to appropriate ethical behaviour.