Posted by: MC | October 13, 2010

Generations of the Social Network

I’m on Facebook.  So is EX:Change.  This is all because I have a daughter in her early 20s.  She lives across the pond – far away from Oregon.  I, of course, want to keep up in all the ways that work for her.  Mostly we Skype, but FB, her I-phone, a smattering of e-mail and (very occasionally) the international postal network all come into play.

Given my generation, being on Facebook may feel a novelty to me but it in no way sets me apart.  In fact it places me in the global mainstream since one out of every 14 people on the planet has a Facebook account.  Go figure.  And no wonder Hollywood jumped on the wave with the recent release of the immediately #1 film, Social Network.  One ingredient in the recipe for blockbuster ticket sales was what David Carr of the New York Times called the generational split.

Although I won’t see the movie until tonight, I have caught wind of the controversy enough to write about it now (besides, I originally wrote this up last week as an op ed for the local paper, but it didn’t go).  I tend to agree with Jonathan Kim who wrote in his blog, Rethink Reviews, “I think this comes down to how different generations perceive the internet and the visionaries driving its innovation.”

Younger media bloggers and the Facebook daddys themselves are being pretty clear that folks of my generation just don’t get it.  Kim’s reasoning is that we’ve been socialized by conventional news media, what he sees as my generation’s information source of choice.  Traditional media, he writes, convinced us that internet-based social networking was, “primarily a tool people used to steal your identity, and MySpace (remember that?) was little more than a way for pedophiles and predators to find their next victims.”  Another blogger, Alexandra Juhasz, similarly attributes the problem to “the failings of normative big-media narrative in a time of digital storytelling.”

Both of these are interesting criticisms, but I’m guessing the problem is even more deeply generational than that.  Essentially, it’s a diversity issue in that the controversy resides in our American habit of retreating into judgment instead of listening to each another across our differences.  In this case, the people who were older than 12 or so when the internet went mainstream would be one cultural group; and the people younger than that, especially those born after the internet’s dawn, would be another cultural group.  Like with so many political, gender, ethnic, religious, etc., etc. groupings this disagreement fits right in with our tendency to categorically dismiss and even despise any designated other side.

You know from this blog and the EX:C site (www.exchange09.com) about my 2009 drive around the country (literally – south then east then north then west) to get a sense of some of these disagreements.  As a mid-career social psychologist, and everyday American (no, those two things are not oxymoronic), I wanted to know what regular people across the nation really meant by the then quite popular word, “change.”  By the time we got through the last presidential election, everyone, across all political persuasions, was talking change.  We all wanted it and we probably still do.

I found two main things as I listened.  Down the coast of California, in Jackson MS, on Long Island or in Omaha what everyday citizens wanted was way more similar than it was different.  This was so even across the most ideologically distant of groups.  The second thing was a loud and consistent call for all of us, especially our elected leaders to grow up – to listen and cooperate with one another.

One of the one-hundred people I interviewed is a businessman who experienced some success early in the technology boom.  He knows the front end of the internet as one of its early participants.  He’s also fifty-something.  In more recent conversations he recalled the conversation he had some 20 years earlier with an AT&T executive that sheds some light on the generational cultures of technology.

In short, people who are mostly grown when a technology comes on the scene adopt it to do what they’ve always done, but to do it faster.  With the internet that looked like, for example, using e-mail as a substitute for letters, memos, phone calls and meetings – for social point-to-point communications.

Soon, the people who grow up with the technology come on the public scene.  They use it differently because it’s always been part of their experience.  As a result, the technology expands and morphs in ways that don’t necessarily make sense to the generations before.  In the case of the internet, we got social networking or mesh technology that links people sort of like neurons or cells all permanently connected and communicating with one another at the same time.

My businessman friend says mesh technology is only great for global relations.  “If I have some connection with you,” he says, “It’s harder to say, ‘You’re not like me and therefore there must be something wrong with you.  I’m going to harm you because my way is better.’”

This same friend works a lot with 20 and 30-somethings who are involved in tech start-ups and also sees a functional limit that internet communication seems to be placing on the development of what he calls “belly-to-belly” social skills.  This isn’t new and it’s likely a tiresome concern to the younger crowd.  Nonetheless, it may be worth considering, especially if relationships like marriages, friendships, work alliances start going badly.

There’s likely valuable stuff to be learned in both generational directions.  The point-to-point generation stands to gain big and creative insight through exploring the power in the web of interconnection; technical and biological.  And generation-mesh can benefit from some chill consideration of interpersonal problem solving.  Many of their elders actually do know some things about the everyday communication of workplaces and such.  We’re not perfect at it, by any means, but we had to rely on it completely prior to cyber-communication.

I’m going to the movie tonight with my businessman friend.  I’ll see what my aging worldview and his make of it and report back if there are new insights to be had.  We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I find myself thinking about Stephen Colbert, the popular night show satirist who is hosting a counter-rally to Jon Stewart’s October 30 national “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  Colbert’s is the “Rally to Keep Fear Alive”

It’s pretty evident we have the fear, disdain and dismissal thing down in this country.  It somehow seems easier.  The big question with the social network is whether we can use it alongside old fashioned face-to-face conversation to listen across differences.  It may only be our lives that depend on it.

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