The Kings Speech and The Social Network are two films that bookend my lifespan from the 1930s to the present. Both are excellent films and illustrate the changes that have taken place over a few decades. In the 1930s people networked by mail and telephones that used operators to connect parties. In 2011, networking is via mobile phones, Blackberries and other gadgets that provide instant communications. Today, everyone seems to know what everyone else is doing anywhere in the world. In 1948, George Orwell wrote about what he expected to happen by 1984. He had no idea of the changes in technology that would actually link then and now. Below I summarize how social networking has changed over time and what this may mean.
In rural England where I lived as a child, people connected with each other in the same neighbourhood. You met and knew your neighbours by seeing them and talking to them. Your circle of immediate acquaintances was small and the conversations were not recorded except in personal memories where the record might be conveniently edited.
A wider circle of acquaintances was reached by mail and for some by telephone. The postal service was relatively cheap but phone calls were paid for on a timed basis and long distance calls were often prohibitive depending on the distance. Emergency long distance messages were sent by telegraph and paid for by the word. In sum a person’s social network was small, most of it close at hand with some facility to link with people further away.
Conversations were not recorded unlike written letters which might be kept but were often discarded. Historians have found letters and diaries invaluable in recording the past if they remain available. Contrast this with the present where many communications are easy to record and store. One observer commented that the hard drive is the greatest invention since grandparents’ memories which previously acted as storage devices.
Other facilities for social networking in the past were the pub, the club and the coffee shop. All these exist in some form today and consume patrons’ waking hours. These are places where unrecorded conversations took place, although now it is easy to record them.
Today social networking takes many forms. All those mentioned above exist and are used to some extent today. However the direct recorded communications now includes e-mail, text messaging, mobile phone usage and devices which allow messages (including audio and video) to be sent by a combination of available wireless and wired networks. More people can afford to send more messages with more content.
What differs today is that all these forms of electronic social networking can be recorded and stored indefinitely. In addition it is possible to forge someone’s presence and remarks. Forged letter writing and messaging is not new but can now be undertaken more easily. Already employers are checking a person’s Facebook and other networking sites to collect background information. Imagine that what a person wrote in their teens may be used to evaluate their suitability for future employment. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show uses video clips of statements made by politicians and others that are often embarrassing. Among children, cyber bullying, is a practice that is engaged in by their peers. This is not to suggest that any of this can be prevented but users of social networking sites need to be aware of the possible downside of these forms of communication.
Blogs such as this are also forms of social networking. While useful for informed feedback and criticism that is generated, blogs too have the potential for negative impacts. While social networking is not new, the forms that it now takes and future developments, unknown at least to me, will need to be monitored. I cannot see that there is much the state can or should do to counter negative effects of social networking. It would require the monitoring of the equivalent of verbal conversations. I am curious to learn what others see in both the upside and downside of social networking today.
One further thought about modern communications technology. While it adds to what one is able to do each day, it does not increase the time available to do it – 24 hours per day, except in the sense that one may be able to do things more efficiently and thus consume less time per activity such as sending a message, correcting a typed draft or researching information. What I need to do is decide how I want to spend my waking hours and search out those applications which support this decision. The advice of those with whom I network is often useful in this quest.