Next week, I’m attending a talk in Culver City. It’s one of my favorite parts of the greater Los Angeles sprawl, a no-fuss but energetic neighborhood with approachable people and good food. It represents comfort in a big city. But the talk, hosted by Zocalo Public Square, is about what is perhaps the antithesis of neighborly comforts. It asks the provocative question “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?”
Since returning from my last trip to Asia, my relationship with my laptop, my netbook and my iPhone has intesified. It’s amazing thing that a writer in Southern California can maintain close friendships with her friends in Singapore and Bangkok and Hong Kong. I’ll never regret that I can do very rich reporting on places far away because of Google Talk and Skype. As isolating as a subrurb can be, I can only imagine how much less interaction with the world I would have without social media and blogs and instant messaging.
But I also have serious reservations about my online life. Online, I am a private person and not a very patient person. Even though I spend a considerable amount of time chatting and blogging and twittering (on both the writing and reading sides), there are a lot of things that cannot happen for me in a virtual world. The Guardian reported last week that Facebook and social networking sites might alter the way the brain works. Neuroscientist Lady Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield according to the Telegraph) is calling for more investigation into the long-term consequences of living online. Indeed, there is a double effect that I’m sure many of us Facebook and Twitter and blog addicts are familiar with. We have constant interaction, “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important,” as the Guardian quotes Greenfield. But on the other hand, we lose depth or narrative in our relationships. Both literally and metaphorically, we diminish our two-dimensional lives. And our brains, as elastic and adaptable as they are, might be losing their capability to think deeper in terms of our relationships. If social networking and blogging might be causing these kinds of visceral changes, I can only imagine what Twitter is doing to my brain.
My editor at The China Beat sent me an article by Andew Sullivan that ran in The Atlantic last year. It’s a great explanation of its title, Why I Blog and presents some really interesting ideas about what a blog can do differently than other mediums. Sullivan writes (on page three of the online text) that a blog “renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”
I don’t have thousands of readers, and by extension I don’t have thousands of friends, but this was a really interesting thought to me. I read EastSouthWestNorth and Traveller’s Tales. Heck, I even read DipNote — not sure that makes me friends with the Secretary of State. But even Madame Secretary takes on a new tone in the blog, with entries like “Question of the Week: What Is the Best Path Forward for Gaza?” and “A Visit to the New Forbidden City.” It’s certainly a way to create more personal, if carefully managed, relationships between citizens their government leaders.
All of this, I think, will make next week’s talk very interesting. If this is what friendship has become — communing on a blog with the Secretary of State, keeping abreast of status updates on Facebook, physical changes in our brains that make long-term attention much more difficult than before — than certainly, the Internet has made us mean. It’s a good thing I’m getting off the Internet at least once to discuss it.
(My desk in California — it’s a pretty mobile existence, which means I take my desk everywhere.)