Monday, November 5, 2007

The Fast Food of Human Connection: Twitter and the Social Network Phenomena

Yesterday the Sunday New York Times style section featured an article about Twitter, the social engine that is driven by users posting short blurbs on the mundane goings on in their life ("micro blogging"), the stuff that no friend or even relatives would really have any interest in knowing about.

Appealing to a voyeuristic impulse driven by a generation raised on disconnection and instant gratification satiated by “reality television,” online porn, video gaming, increasingly short formed entertainment, and email that has replaced the need to connect by phone or in person, Twitter is as much about connection as chewing gum is about nutrition. But yet, you will find hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people following the random, mindless white noise events of another humans life. Giving away their finite time on this great earth, to track events and opinions as such (here is a random sampling):

Hungover, dim sum is my favorite. Shakes are stopping. – 161 followers

I'm at bar camp la. – 887 followers

I am sooo grateful for getting an extra hour of sleep. Thank you, DST! – 648 followers

Adding 40 friends on facebook - 4226 followers

What is driving not only Twitter but the whole social network phenomena is the need for acceptance and validation; the bigger the number of “followers” or “friends” you have the more “important” you are. Your life is now a essentially a video game, with the winner ranked at the top. The New York Times wrote about one highly connected user Chris Messina and his opinion on Twitter,

You can be overwhelmed with feeling alone when you are used to being connected all the time, “ he said, calling Twitter entries “sonic pulses that let you know, hey, we’re really not that alone after all.”

The truth is that you are alone Chris. If Naom Cohen of the Times didn’t say it, I will. Sonic pulses are good food MRI’s but not for human connection. We can create tools that make our life longer, easier or more efficient, a vacuum cleaner, a phone, indoor plumbing, the polio vaccination, but Twitter accomplishes nothing truly relevant. It does not make human interaction more efficient, nor does it help you get more connected, it feeds you an illusion of connection - for which you pay for with your time (helping build someone else's business model in the process). Let’s get real folks, just because it sells (or makes you feel good in the short run) doesn’t mean it ever should have it made it to the market.

I am horrified to see kids that define play by sitting on a coach for hours and being plugged in to a virtual world, and unplugged from the real world, or men being sucked into the black hole of online sex and unplugging from the real intimacy in their own bedrooms, or DVD players in cars that keep kids looking at Elmo instead of the going on of the world just outside their window. The problem is that we are tearing ourselves away from the natural rhythm of how we are as a species connected to one another and the planet. No technology is going to transform the millions of years of rhythms and flow of the cycle of life. Yet, we are systematically re conditioning how we engage with ourselves, one another and our planet and the result is an artificial construction that is as out of whack as a cancer in a living system.

Many of us who are trying to live more mindfully are allergic to excessive consumerism, over scheduling, and being inundated by the overload of media and information. We look for quality, not quantity. We do not want speed in our life, but depth in our life. We want things that last from clothes, to toys for our kids, to our homes our built to how our relationships are built. We do not want fast food, but whole food. We do not want the magic pill that makes it “go away,” but want to know the cause of our imbalance and systems that look a whole person for healing. We want to feel our humanity in whole, and honor the time and process that it requires. We want to plug into the natural cycle of who we are, and for this – there is no instant fix.. We do not want sonic pulses, we want human touch. We want quality in real friends, instead of quantity in illusionary friends. We do not want to be "plugged into the Matrix," and certainly not by our own hand.

Twitter and the social network phenomena points to one obvious reality, that humans deeply and desperately want to connect, but platforms like these are the McDonald's of human connection – quick, bad for you, nutritionally empty, and fed on giving the least healthy thing to as many people as possible – for one simple purpose, money. I for one, remain, thankfully far from the drive thru window, and I am sure in good company.

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