Even before the web was smacked sideways by the new generation of socially oriented websites, the academics were getting interested in how the web might affect us socially. I can’t find it right now (it was years ago), but a really interesting theory I read proposed that far from the internet cutting down on the amount of travel we do, it actually encourages it by making us feel ‘closer’ to people, a somewhat counter-intuitive theory. Yes, people are travelling more, but the ludicrous lack of taxes on airline fuel may have more to do with that. Other theories are more neutral on this issue: that the internet augments our existing social lives, not making us more or less reclusive.
In the past six months, this issue has really hit home for me. Everyone and their mother seems to be on facebook: people who I imagined were extremely sceptical about using such technologies are really getting into it. My feeling (rather than a solid theory!) is that things are really changing very fundamentally.
In the same way that most sceptics have been won over by email and mobile phones slowly through the years (even the most ardent), I feel that our social communication is going to change even more for all but the most frozen of hearts. My limited experience with twitter seems to back this up, although time will tell which technologies will grab the attention of the masses.
We’ll be much more aware of what our friends are up to and be encouraged to make more frequent physical contact as a result. I wonder whether the momentum behind this change would have been possible without SMS. Its has been critical is lowering the barrier for social contact: as its now possible to invite someone non-intrusively to a meetup with a single word (e.g. “Pub?”), a large part of the awkwardness and formality of traditional contact has disappeared.
But I’m getting off topic. If we’re becoming more aware of what our friends are up to, and hence encouraged to make physical contact more often (perhaps regardless of distance), how does our local community fit in?
It strikes me that as our day-to-day awareness expands to people we perhaps wouldn’t normally make frequent contact with, there’s an area of our lives that’s been sadly neglected with the growth of the tv-industrial complex: our local community. I’ve grown up in places largely unaware of my local communities, and I don’t think I’m alone (as a city-dweller). Modern living has made us withdrawn, lest we forget that it wasn’t so long ago that our local community was our largely our only social community.
So I’m now wondering what’s on the cards for local awareness. If we’re being drawn into socially-oriented technology by way of peer pressure, is there a force for making us locally aware? The technology is starting to emerge, certainly. Sites like Topix and Who Is Sick provide fertile ground for this kind of awareness.
But I wonder about those sceptics: perhaps peer pressure won’t come into play, like it does when a social network becomes ‘the’ way for a group of friends to stay in contact. It will take something stronger, like a local issue or crisis to draw people in. The key to it is the ‘low barrier’ though, or perhaps a ‘killer app’ (if bird flu really does take spread, Who Is Sick might find themselves in a blackly comic position). Someone’s involvement/awareness in their local community needs to be easier than it is right now, or perhaps rewarding in unexpected ways (like rediscovering friends on facebook).
I’m starting to gain a little awareness myself in this respect: our local politicians are starting to blog, and not necessarily confining the topic to news. A building caught fire on the seafront a couple of weeks ago, and they blogged about it. As I don’t trust/read the local newspapers here, I suddenly realized how novel it was that I became aware of a local news event through A. my local representative (never listened to them before) and B. my feedreader (Google Reader – not exactly a typical medium for this kind of news).
I hope there’s a real trend here: local communal awareness blurring into a more democratic, people-oriented space, free of the trappings of old media.
Which brings me back to the topic of my blog, as its something I’ve been struggling to define, but I think I have it now. I’m not quite as interested in social networking as the beginning of this article suggests: I’m more interested in how ideas for societal good take hold. The mainstream media seems to be stuck in a pattern it can’t escape, so perhaps the avenue of humane progress is to be found in fresh means of communication.
Ideas like freecycle demonstrate this feeling brilliantly. A group of people fed up with consumer culture and endless piles of unwanted junk decided that there is a better way of doing things, and all they needed was the means to find each other.
That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see more of in this world.