In Defense of Social Networking


Social networking continues to get a bad wrap. Facebook is a destroyer of friendships, a stealer of information and a transparent attempt to insert sales into everyone’s every waking moment. Twitter is a foolish waste of time reserved for only the most vapid. MySpace is stupid (this one is true).

I’ve been wondering lately what it is about critiques of social networks that seems to get to me. After all, it doesn’t irk me if someone doesn’t like a band, show or sports team I like. Why would I feel any differently regarding a website?

I think the answer lies in the nature of the critique. More often than not, it feels like the complaint is not with the format or presentation of the website, but the function that these sites perform. And the complaints are not that people don’t have a use for the service the site provides (understandable) it’s that the sites are either inherently stupid or somehow malicious. Social networking websites don’t have some Skynet AI that will bring them to take over the world. They are tools, and the utilty of a tool is determined by the user.

Sure, Twitter is filled with idiots, but does that mean Twitter is stupid? If an inordinate number of people decide that they want to use hammers for the sole purpose of smacking themselves in the forehead, does that make hammers stupid? (The answer I’m looking for here is “No”) The presumption is that there is no utility to be found in these services and there never will be. Despite evidence to the contrary, as when Twitter was used to disseminate information during the recent Iranian revolts, critics of these sites persist.

Twitter and Facebook, compounding my irkitude, are basically just fancier versions of pre-existing and widely accepted technology. Twitter is essentially mass text messaging (or asynchronous Instant Messaging if you want to see it that way), and users have the option to make these messages available to the general public or protected just for their approved friends. Facebook is an amalgamation of various other services: photo sharing sites, blogs, flash game sites, etc. None of those things on their own are criticized, but combine them into one mega-site and we’re looking at the breakdown of civilization itself. Typical concerns with Facebook revolve around privacy concerns, when there is now a pretty thorough suite of ways to finely tune what can and cannot be seen of your information by the world at large.

So by all means have no use for these sites, or simply do not care for the way they work. But to state that the sites and/or their users are in some way foolish just by their very nature is shortsighted. Like any tool, their utility is determined by their usage.

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  1. #1 by Badmoodman on September 28, 2009 - 3:18 PM

    Well, this irks me:

    On Saturday, a user on Facebook posted a poll asking, “Should Obama be killed?” The blogger GottaLaff spotted the poll yesterday and called the Secret Service, which has now launched an investigation.

  2. #2 by Badmoodman on September 28, 2009 - 3:34 PM

    Humans can only process so many friends – around 150, according to anthropologists. The rest is grooming, like chimps. And the real circle of communicants is stable and small:

    http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13176775

  3. #3 by Eric Thomas on September 29, 2009 - 2:27 PM

    This is something I’m really happy you’ve addressed. I’ve actually been having conversations with friends about just this. There are lots of people, some of my really close friends included, who think that Twitter and Facebook are “so stupid” and ruin people’s lives. I find myself, just like you, getting defensive. I have the exact same standpoint and have actually effectively used it to help people understand why social media isn’t the culprit here, people are. If some asshole puts something on Twitter, knowing what it is, that’s on him/her. Not the service. Should we get rid of telephones? Perhaps we can destroy TV’s as well?

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