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March 28-April 3, 2007

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Flat-screen friends

Flat-screen friends: Is your social life trapped in a box?

Get Lonely

Online social networking is supposedly coming of age. Maybe that's why it's so awkward and lame

By Mike Connor


Are you down with all the latest trends to keep up with friends?--M. Ward

I've been on kind of a high since I got voted Time magazine's person of the year, but now that the honeymoon is ending, Tori Amos is really starting to piss me off.

It wasn't enough that she drove a wedge into my marriage by making music that I hate and my wife loves. Then she went and dissed my wife. And of all the places to get dissed, it happened on MySpace, "a place for friends."

Friends, shmriends. As of press time, Tori Amos had 80,296 of them on MySpace; apparently 80,297 is one too goddamned many. Same thing with Pearl Jam: 193,030 friends, and no love for one of their most loyal (and adorable) fans. All they had to do was answer "yes" to the friend request. This is how we did it when we were four years old: "Want to be my friend?" "Yes." Done. Now, I automatically get all your bulletins about what you did with your cat today and when you're going on tour. Thanks for the add!

But no. "A place for friends" has apparently become a place for lazy PR reps who can't be bothered to nurture the fragile egos of the fans who make them rich.

Worse yet, it's becoming increasingly clear that these prefab cybercommunities are still cheap imitations of the real thing. In its current evolutionary stage, joining an online social network does to you something like what the Phantom Zone did to General Zod, Ursa and Non, the Superman II villains trapped in that flying LP cover. Existence is flattened into a two-dimensional plane where you're constrained to operate within a new and very limited set of behavioral rules. You are text, pictures, a few songs and maybe a video clip or two. And since users don't have to see their own page in order to check in on it, many are hopelessly unaware of how badly theirs suck.

And you can suck as anyone you want to be: in fact, General Zod himself is actually on MySpace. Sweet, right? MySpace is delivering on the promise inherent in social networking--that I'm just about six clicks away from anyone I can think of, even a fictional character in a movie. But does Zod respond to my e-mails? No. Disappointing to say the least, until I notice that Superman himself--the son of Jor-El, who imprisoned Zod in the Phantom Zone--is in Zod's top eight friend spaces. What a fraud!

But there's more fraud than just impersonation going on. A woman I know had her MySpace account hacked twice so that it sent out random advertisements to everyone she knew while she should have been working. The same woman got stalked by her ex via MySpace, which was not nearly as bad as the stories going around about hot young things being stalked by Catholic-priest types.

But it's getting to the point where these glitches are considered necessary evils, to be endured for the supposed greater good of constant connectedness. Consider the following statistic, which was inspired by the folk singer Todd Snider's observation that "65 percent of all statistics are made up right there on the spot." Eighty-seven percent of all MySpace users are probably addicted--yes, addicted--to checking their MySpace accounts. And when they're not MySpacing, I bet 69 percent of them are instant-messaging, blogging, vlogging, text-messaging and talking on cell phones in grocery store checkout lines, all to avoid experiencing the world alone. Thanks to social networking, our culture is undeniably hyperconnected. Is there any escape?

Party of Myself

One group of artists wants us all to taste loneliness again, if just for 15 minutes or so. San Francisco's Southern Exposure has collaborated with New York's Glowlab to create "NOSO," an anti-social networking experiment in public space. It's kind of like "Buy Nothing Day," except it lasts over a month (through May 5), and it won't necessarily stick it to the Man so much as just plain confuse him.

The plan works something like this: The word is spread, ironically, by social-networking sites like MySpace, Digg and de.lici.ous. Then, people will log on to www.nosoproject.com and sign up for 15-minute nonmeetings with no friends. Maybe it's at an Internet cafe, maybe it's a park bench--some kind of public space where people are used to being social. But surely we'll get clues as to who it is we're not meeting?

"You get no clues," dictates SE's exhibitions program manager Maysoun Wazwaz. "You go to this location, and the location is to not meet, it's to not have a friend, it's a no-event."

She must be joking, right?

"There's obviously a bit of humor to it--it's a critique of being so hyperconnected," says Wazwaz. "The idea is to remove yourself completely from that. It's kind of an experiment: can people remove themselves? The idea really is to not meet this person. It's kind of the challenge: is it possible to do that? The way we all work, we want to know who's in the room with us. The idea is to disengage in places where one maybe wouldn't, to experience what that's like."

It's easy to rip on social networking, but to abandon it? These days, probably not--or at least not for long. Fortunately, the assignment is short, and at the end of the day there will be blog hits for everyone! That is, you're free, and encouraged, to blog about your experience like the junkies you are.

Experiments like Southern Exposure's aren't cures for what is now referred to as the "web 2.0 junkie." For that illness, there is no cure in sight. Social networking is just the natural progression of the promise of the Internet to connect everyone in a worldwide web (called MySpace), and it's an unstoppable juggernaut. And even as that juggernaut comes crashing through our office walls like the Kool-Aid man--and this cyanide capsule in my mouth says it's not taking me alive--there are other, calmer voices in the crowd saying this social-networking thing might not be the end of the world. Just the one as we know it.

Web 2.0 junkie

Web 2.0 junkie: If you understand this caption head, you already know too much.

How MySpace Won

Robert Young, who describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur, market disrupter and deal maker," has blogged extensively and authoritatively on the phenomenon of social networking at Gigaom.com. Agreeing to an interview on the subject, Young said that ultimately he believes social networking is just another form of self-expression, albeit a potent one.

"Once online, the ability to bring together our circles of friends, who then bring their own circles, creates tremendous network effects (e.g., six degrees of separation)," says Young, "which all culminates into a new communications experience/medium that also offers the benefit of serendipitous discovery of new friends."

Validating my earlier, made-up statistic, Young says that social networks "have proven very addictive," but he stops short of characterizing it as some sort of disease. Young calls chronic social networking a "generational phenomenon" and says the invectives aimed at it are akin to those aimed at rock 'n' roll, which was similarly demonized back in the day.

"The presence of evil societal elements is certainly not a problem specific to [social networking]," says Young.

According to Young, MySpace is not, in fact, evil, but is targeted "simply because it's the market leader." So how did it get that pole position?

"MySpace gave users a great deal of freedom to express themselves--for example, pimping your profiles," says Young, "and doing so set them apart from the leader at the time, Friendster, which was very rigid."

Young was the first to call MySpace "the new MTV--the site's focus on the indie music scene in L.A. gave them a cool factor right out of the gate," he says. "And by becoming the new MTV, they cornered the youth market in the U.S. virtually overnight."

If MySpace is the new, pimpable version of MTV, then it might follow, like night does the day, that over time it will suck more and more as it grows bigger and bigger. Right?

"There's no simple answer to this question," says Young. "If a particular social network is very big, its utility to any given user will depend highly on how well the site itself is organized and structured. Facebook is the best example of great structure, because it gives the user a very high, and granular, level of control over how her particular social network is governed. But at the end, the critical factor that determines whether a social network is useful or not, with respect to size, is what the user wants out of the social network. If she wants to simply use social networks as a way to keep in touch with a set group of family and friends, then the size of the social network matters little. If, on the other hand, she wants to use the social network to express herself to the widest audience possible and meet new friends, then size matters."


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