Can you have too many friends on the internet ?

Imagine a room with about 1200 people in it. Its a pretty confined space with the special characteristic that everyone of those 1200 people is able to tap you on the shoulder at a moments notice. The room is pretty busy. A lot of talking going on and people are constantly wanting to show you the new toy they bought or  the fact that it just started snowing outside. Aside from this constant stream of chatter everybody has the instant ability to engage in direct conversation with you if they want to. Now imagine your office and your living room are in the middle of this giant room. The place where you work and live, surrounded by these 1200 friends. How would this impact your life ?

 

The situation might seem pure science fiction, but in reality, its not.  If I start counting the number of followers I have on twitter, the number of friends on Facebook, the people that have circled me on Google plus and the odd number of people on IM services like Skype …  It adds up to this amount. Sure thing there are “dupes” in that list , so lets say 2/3rd of these people are unique : That’s still about 800 people. 800 people ! Aside from being flattered (because I haven’t counted in the people who shoot me regular emails ) that’s also a little bit of a scary number. Being in a room with 800 people who want to tell me stuff , talk to me or engage me in other forms of interaction is a pretty “crowded” scene to imagine. The question is : How does this impact my life right now .. and what is still to come ? Judging by the “rise” in online acquaintances over the years its safe to say our “virtual social circle” will only grow over time. You might have had only 5 friends on Facebook (including your mom) when you  first set up your account. Chances are that that number has grown over time .. and will continue to do so. And everyone of that ” Virtual Social Circle ” has something to share with the world, and every one in that social circle can interact with you.  This will probably turn your experience in ‘being behind a computer’ from a rather a-social experience into a very social experience .. But what happens when you turn the computer off ? With smartphones and permanent connectivity those 800 friends slide right into your pants (Yes, that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean) and you take them, their stories, their shared experiences, their conversations and their interactions … with you everywhere you go.
So in essence, we are never alone anymore. No matter if we walk through a deserted forest with no one in sight .. if you have data coverage on your phone .. : these people are along for the ride.  How do we deal with that ? People who yell : “just turn your phone off” might be right, but these days it just isn’t as simple as that. A lot of the services we use for our daily lives become more and more “cloud based” demanding constant connectivity AND interaction with the Internets. And turning off interaction with your social circle while still being connected to the internet is a pretty tricky feature to configure on your smartphone. Its mostly either ‘Completely online’ and ‘airplane mode’. And that is just the technological side of the coin. What about our mental one ? The human curiosity to “know” what lies message lies waiting behind that little muffled “ping” your heard your cellphone make while it was in your backpack… That dopamine rush you get while consuming yet another peace of ( fairly useless ) information about your American friend who just had a latte at Starbucks ? And what if those numbers in your circles start to grow .. more stories , more information , more interaction , more pings .. more dopamine ..  What will it lead to  ?
At a certain point you’ll reach an apex of what can only be called ‘social saturation’.  Where ‘the social web’ was actually built as a ‘filter’ to select valuable information from the fire hose of data called the internet by using social ‘ties’ as the selection criteria .. even that filtered feed is becoming a fire hose. Sure, just like with ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances ‘ there are different levels of social relationships in your life. It might even work to build in those ‘levels’ in your ‘main social media feed’ to kinda filter stuff out. But does it help ?
In “real life” interaction is mostly based on proximity. I don’t talk to my neighbor a lot because we don’t physically “see” each other every day. But online (since I follow her on twitter) its like she is sitting right next to me every day, sharing her every thought. So even if you filter down your social online circle according to ‘depth of relationships’ , the people on that level STILL have instant access to you and are no longer separated by any physical space. You’ve culled some , but these people are still going to the bathroom with you every time you take your smartphone along.

 The most dangerous thing here is that technology and connectivity are growing faster then our “social intelligence” does
. In other words : Tech is moving faster then our behavioural routines to deal with this. This all results in stress, difficulty in concentrating and loss in productivity. Looking at the fact that about 90 percent of all life hacking posts deal with ‘ how to concentrate ‘ , ‘ how to focus ‘ and ‘ how to be more productive ‘ , I can safely say i’m not making shit up here. The sheer fact that you are still reading this and haven’t wandered off to watch pictures of kitty’s online .. is worth a medal.Personally I watch my own behavioral patterns in all of this . To get stuff done , I shire away from my multiscreen desktop and “hide out” in the fairly low tech (and distraction free) surroundings of my  old netbook or my ipad. Screen blanking – stimuli suppressing apps like Ommwriter and Catlooking writer become tools of every day use. Screen real estate gets shrunken down to 10 or 7 inch screens to only allow single applications to dominate the screen. I purposely forget to charge my cellphone on a Sunday. I remove the ‘work email account’ from my personal smartphone…  In essence I feel that I try to look for that ‘Walden pond’ that is described in William Powers book ” Hamlets Blackberry” . That place where you disconnect your interactions with the outside and try to focus on your inner self .. to be at peace .. to be creative .. to write .. to read .. to step away from the information age . But to be honest .. I wonder how long we can keep this up. A few years ago I wrote a blog post of how my life would be when I would be “constantly connected” … Now i’m writing one on how to get “away” from it all. We live in a fast moving world. A world that I look at differently because of the wonders of the internet. But its also a world that never sleeps.. that never takes a break and that never sits back to contemplate the previous day .. ever forward .. ever faster.

But here I am .. Closing up the very article I wanted to write
. Feeling the satisfaction of being able to complete a task. Of being able to scratch a creative itch .. Of being ‘uninterrupted’ for a while. A certain peaceful feeling settles upon me as I proofread the article before posting. Another ‘creative task’ concluded. So in essence the most important person to talk to in this ever growing communicational omnisphere that is the internet … is probably … your inner self .

 

Links : “Hamlets Blackberry by William Powers”

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