The Value of Computer-based Social Networks–Or Not

Mitch HobishGrowth, Productivity

Technology as a means of establishing and facilitating communication between people has a long history.  Let’s skip right to more modern means, beginning with the telegraph, move through the years to the telephone and on to fax, followed by the early days of computer-network mediated message handling via nascent email and early chat tools.  As we get closer to today’s offerings of “social networks”, Twitter, and so on, I wonder if we might find ourselves potentially ignoring the rest of our lives as we hurry to share with whoever is Out There the latest and greatest of our thoughts and actions.

I’ve long been a user of computer-based technology for communications, starting in about 1978 with Compuserve and others of its ilk.  These were early, less-sophisticated social networks, albeit frequented largely by those who had some glimmerings of what the supporting technology was all about:   Does anyone else remember Compuserve? Delphi? Byte Information Exchange (BIX)? Genie? The Well?  I was active on all of them.  For many years (1987-1993), I was Sysop for a public-access computer-based bulletin board and discussion system (The Science Lab), through which I met many wonderful people, some of whom I still count among my friends.  It was fascinating then to be in what we considered real- or near-real-time contact with others, and often with others we hadn’t even met.

And yet, I remember feeling even then that I was spending an inordinate amount of time “sharing” with my “friends”.  Bit by bit (no pun intended–I think), I let all these communications channels lie fallow, and focused on the needs of my life–finishing up my dissertation, moving on to postdoctoral work, and more.

As time has marched inexorably on, I found myself no longer at the cutting edge with such things; I still don’t even own a cell phone!  I have set up tight filters on my emails–not only to reduce the load of spam, but also to help me parse incoming material into folders that allow me to keep my Inbox focused on things that must be dealt with sooner, rather than later.  I don’t have a Facebook account, I’m not interested in Google+, and Twitter to me is the sound the birds make in the hills around my home.

And yet, I don’t feel that my communications with people are suffering.

People with whom I feel it appropriate to communicate seem very satisfied with my phone calls or email.  Indeed, most of my business activities depend on these two modes almost entirely.  I have a close circle of friends ( many fewer than the thousands I hear are not unusual for users of social networking sites), and am quite comfortable letting weeks or months go by without continually “updating” them about where I am, what and how I’m doing, or inquiring about their activities.  Indeed, these latencies seem to make the contacts–when we establish them–that much more valuable and interesting.

In this light, then, I have to wonder what all the fuss is about.  Am I just being curmudgeonly, not understanding how and why the latest communication channels are so great?  On the other hand, is it possible that those who do spend some or significant amounts of their assets on omnipresent communications are really adding value to their lives?  Our society?  If so, what value might that be?

This is at least a three-pipe problem, Watson.

Questions:  How much time do you spend on “social networking”? Does it affect your personal and professional lives–for good or bad? What benefits accrue to you with such activities? Could you spend your time differently–perhaps more effectively?