Living in your own private social network /= living in society

Do you remember when we used to dance
And incidents arose from circumstance
One thing led to another we were young
And we would scream together songs unsung

On October 24 a news item broke that suggested that Sony was going to stop producing its original Walkman. I had a little moment of actual nostalgia when I heard. It made me think back to the first Walkman I ever had… I had saved up my money from various tasks for which my stepmonster had underpaid me all summer. Macy’s was having a sale, and the object of my desire was there waiting for me for 100 USD. I was ready. I had the cash in a pile of neatly stacked 1s, 5s, 10s and even a few 20s. No coin, far too sophisticated to be carting around change; I had hit the big time by 1982.

And the Walkman, as promised, changed everything. I loved it. My parents hated it. They said I was “tuned out,” and that it was like having someone there who wasn’t there. [For the purposes of this post I will skip the irony of ‘tuning out’ morphing from good to bad from the 1960s to the 1980s… I imagine it is only one of many things of which the same could be said.] But I kept that thing on all the time. It was am/fm and cassette. My first cassettes were the eponymous album by Asia (thank you Uncle Paul) and the Go-Gos’ Vacation (thanks dad.) I remember getting Duran Duran’s Rio and The Fixx Reach the Beach fairly soon after that as well as a few other choice selections.

I never took the thing off. It was exactly as it had been posited by the British press on release of the personal stereos the year before:

As I sat contemplating what I loved about my first Walkman, I decided to go and see the new(ish) movie The Social Network. I grabbed my coat and my iPhone and stuck in my earphones and off I went. I waved at my neighbors who were also “plugged in.” We couldn’t hear a word we might have said to each other, but made appropriate head and hand gestures. It didn’t even strike me as unusual. I am not sure what the actual statistics are, but I am guessing that when I am out and about somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of people are tuned *in* to their handheld devices. Whether or not this constitutes being tuned *out* of something greater or more significant remains to be seen. We walk around in our own little bubbles, aware of the people around us – sort of – but in very music video montage sort of way. I am sure that the reasons for being plugged in vary, and I don’t know if it is *anti* social, but it is certainly *nouveau* social. [Case in point: while at the Treasure Island Music Festival a few weeks ago, one of our favorite moments was the silent disco. Everyone has headphones on and jams to the beat… with the headphones on it seems totally normal, take them off and it is a total trip to witness. Is it anti-social? No way, but it is certainly a whole new kind of social.]

Anyhow, off I went to the Metreon to catch the flick.

I am intensely interested in the social networking phenomenon. I have written about it extensively so I am not sure I need to elaborate on why here, but the way that people socialize now, constantly yet virtually, is fascinating. My own trials and tribulations to this end have been interesting [euphemism alert.] I was hoping that The Social Network would tap into some of these issues.

It did not.

Basically a Mark Zuckerburg biopic, the film superficially covers the origins of “The” social network from an intellectual property perspective with great emphasis on the import of timeliness in said endeavors. Of course this obsession with the instantaneous is one of the effects of the social network phenomena I am interested in, but I am far more interested in the way it has suddenly become such a desperate need for people to be constantly in contact, such a compulsion, that it is creating what seems to be an entirely separate parallel society.

Post pictures, stalk your frienemies, pimp your lifestyle, promote your shit. It is all fine. But what happens when this becomes more than your social network, it becomes your entire society?

Recently I have become aware of entire groups of people whose primary existence plays out from their computer screens. These are people with jobs, kids, marriages and all the sorts of things that have comprise human society for millennia. But their entire existence plays out in their Twitter feed or on their Facebook page. These people are getting divorced because of alliances with their ‘followers’ and ‘connections.’ They are falling in love with people they have never even met beyond the pale glow of the laptop. They are being consumed by jealousy of people they have never met. They are forming communities of [published] shared interests/failings/fears/disappointments. They are dedicating entire days and nights tracking people they do not even know because somehow they feel like they do know them because they can “see” them online. They are creating virtual relationship realities. My initial reaction was pity:

And when your looks are gone and you’re alone
How many nights you sit beside the phone
What were the things you wanted for yourself
Teenage ambitions you remember well

I asked a “follower” of mine about existing behind an anonymous profile… why do it? How can it be as satisfying as real life? He said: “When people are in a place of hurt or need (as most hidden profiles are) it is very easy… There is a whole community of people living lives like this that can only find peace or acceptance online, behind private profiles.” Another “follower” [both of these individuals I ‘follow’ back, for the record, but I do not ‘know’ them beyond the cyber-connection] reminded me with poignant accuracy that “Real life love can be an illusion, too.”

Both those comments were legitimate and honest. They gave me pause and made me wonder about our society.

Society means: body of individuals living as members of a community; community. Synonyms for this word include: companionship, civilization, association, camaraderie, commonality. The origin of the word comes from the Latin root meaning partner or comrade. In modern usage it has come to mean a “group of people living together in an ordered community (1639). I kind of feel like living together is the key operative. But I could be wrong.

How did we get here, to a place where society is maintained remotely and the idealized person we want to be/create on-line becomes a ready and welcome substitute for IRL? It is like everyone has just plugged in permanently and the opportunity to be present in the present seems a bit lost. When I look at this turn of events I feel like I might understand how my mom felt when she would see my 12-year-old self walk by while asking me a question I would not answer because I was completely unaware she was even talking to me.

When I spend too long in front of my computer I get depressed. Not clinically, or permanently, but I notice a definite shift in how I feel. The minute I step outside, away from it, I feel like a different person.

And that is precisely my point.

We are different people IRL. I do not have an entirely private profile on Twitter or the [insidious] Social Network. And I was recently made aware of just how easily someone could virtually find me as a result of my blog. I don’t know how different I might be to people IRL v. online, mostly because I have only met three people from the universe of the online that I did not previously know in my real life. All three of them have turned out to be totally awesome [I’m talking to you Mikey V., Driss and Daniel] and I think I am finally going to meet a couple pretty awesome ladies I know from this parallel universe as well in the coming months [Polly P. and HuroKitty FTW.] Will they think I am like my online self? I guess I will see, but until I do know them IRL it seems like it is all just speculation. And to throw caution totally to the wind and upend one’s life that they inhabit in reality for the online reality one thinks they inhabit seems – well, passionate and exciting… and dangerously likely to fall short of the monumental expectations.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, what is the Twitter feed? The status update? The chat window? The cyberspace and the meatspace need not be mutually exclusive, this I know. But it seems to me that it is a delicate balance that can all too easily go awry. And when it does it is rarely because people are spending too much time in the real world.

I am not convinced Mark Zuckerburg has made out society a better place, but I agree he was on to something big about how humans interact. Did taking our music everywhere launch this? Quien sabe. I know for me it is definitely time to take off the headphones.  So, Sony, I am sorry to see the Walkman get outsourced to China as a cute relic, but it’s all good: I am ready to add some legit background noise. Right after I update my status…

And now you find yourself in ’82
The disco hot spots hold no charm for you
You can concern yourself with bigger things
You catch a pearl and ride the dragon’s wings

‘Cause it’s the heat of the moment
The heat of the moment
The heat of the moment showed in your eyes


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Life, Perception, Relationships and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Living in your own private social network /= living in society

  1. Fernando says:

    I like the connections you made here. Being able to record music radically changed the relationship people had to music and the zenith of that was the walkman to ipod era. That said, people still go to concerts, they still make music in their home and they still (if more rarely) gather in garages, cafes and around campfires to make music together.

    My feelings about online relationships ebbs and flows. I like blogs and the expressive freedom they give, but find forums troublesome and often toxic. I appreciate the way Twitter helps us meet interesting people, but couldn’t stand Facebook and felt relieved when I finally quit using it.

    • Amanda says:

      I am so glad you *saw* the connections I was trying to make, I felt like I was getting loopy. I tried quitting FB but went back with myriad excuses/justifications, and it does little to make me happy, though lately I have seen the really creepy and gross side of Twitter too and as I only have IRL people on my second gen of FB, that doesn’t happen now.

      And in the final analysis I certainly will cast no stones from my glass house, but it something to see how people have become more dependent on these virtual connections than the other more tangible kind. And the tuning out… well, my mom always ends up being right, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at all to finally arrive at the place where I totally get what she was talking about. 😉

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  3. Clare says:

    Great post.. lots to think about.

    In December I will be forced to go internet free for two weeks. I am genuinely a little terrified. Not because I must twitter or FB but the thought of being without information and email…

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