The Internet, we’re told, brings people together — and I’d certainly say that it can perform that function; it allows those with a common interest, whether that’s ancient sports cars, cutting edge technology or butterflies to gather together no matter where they are on the planet.
But does it really bring us closer together? Research commissioned by Optus recently suggested that despite the massive numbers of people using social networks — not to mention the plethora of networks one could belong to — we still don’t feel as though we’re communicating with those that we’re “close” to as much as we’d like.
The research focused on Facebook, where (according to the Optus statistics) the average Australian has 165 “friends”. Of those average 165, only 33 of them are said to be “close” friends, but 45 per cent of those surveyed felt that social networks make them feel less close to their family and friends.
It’s worth bearing in mind here that you can spin statistics any way you like; it’s not immediately apparent from the released research what the other 55 per cent thought of social networks in terms of closeness, for example. Still, I can see a few reasons why, despite social networks offering another way to communicate, it might make some feel a little isolated.
The most obvious one is the issue of privacy. Not just from the network that you’re on — although Facebook can be difficult in terms of setting and keeping your privacy intact — but the privacy of what you say, and who you’re saying it to. If you’re the extroverted type, that may not be a problem, but those who are a little more shy would probably find the archival nature of a social network like Facebook a little offputting. You can delete individual posts or comments, but what’s typed there is still published for some time — and if it’s not on your account, you may not be able to delete it at all.
There’s also the question of matching the right social networks to the right use. Some networks are particularly focused; LinkedIn, for example has a strong professional focus, where Facebook or Google+ are a lot more freewheeling. Twitter’s arguably more free than anything else, save for the restriction on the number of characters within a post; that may lead to brevity, but it can also make it hard to make a complex point or hold a truly meaningful discussion. It’s certainly possible for social networking chat to be drowned out by the general noise — I’ve got a few “friends” on my own Facebook list, for example, who are inordinately fond of posting many pictures in sequence, which can drown out the communications with others.
Ultimately, I think social networks are just tools for a purpose; if you’re feeling as though they make you less social, is that a fault of the tool or the user?