Silent in a noisy world

I recently threw a spanner of rebellion into the works of social convention and deleted my account on the all-pervading Facebook.

I joined it back in 2005 or so when it was beginning to hit British universities. At the time it was still a network solely for students, and was quite a phenomenon. But I remember, even then, friends would laugh in recollection of how much time they’d managed to waste on it, staring at other friends’ photos and so on.

Oh, how things haven’t changed.

Now Facebook is a rolling behemoth dominating the waters of the web, much like Google has come to do in the search engine domain. I recently watched the wonderful screen adaptation of Facebook’s massive rise to fame and the surrounding legal cases, The Social Network, which I enjoyed hugely, mainly for Aaron Sorkin’s exquisite dialogue and beautifully crafted plot-line. But it didn’t really make me want to go back.

I’d already had it in my heart for some time to leave. There were still a few people I knew who didn’t make any use of it, and had great lives. Lives which included managing to keep in touch with their old friends. They seemed to be doing better at it than me, it happened. This got me thinking. Facebook already annoyed me, but my arguments had been that it was “useful for keeping in touch with old friends” and so on. Now, I saw that argument crumbling as I realised that in the intervening five or so years since finishing at university, I’d made barely any moves to contact those I’d so keenly added as ‘friends’ during my student days. Now, no discredit to them, they were great people. I was really the problem, and Facebook was not helping. All it was giving me was endless Farmville requests.

So, I took the plunge. I sent out a message and hopefully enough old friends saw it, that if they wished to get in touch we should use other methods like, I don’t know, email, text, or even face to face.

Last night I enjoyed one such face to face with an old friend from university. Maybe it’s starting to work.

Because it strikes me that in this day and age the dominating social drivers are communication networks. Technology is now at the forefront of consumerism, with smartphones, tablets, and personal computers paving the way, and behind them is a continuous drive to make communication more fluid, more fun, more engaging.

Which is why I’m confused. Because the second thing that strikes me is that we live in a world in which true communication is dying. Oh sure, it’s not dead. But I think we’re going to have to start making a sharp distinction between what represents good ‘communication’ and what goes on with ‘social networks’. You can now have a friend by clicking a button. Click again and they are no longer your friend. A ‘conversation’ can now mean a bunch of typed up words between two people potentially miles apart and possibly over a great span of time. Or they can take place between two people in the same building but who have not bothered to stand up and go to one another.

Meanwhile this generation seems stuck as ever as not being able to relate or address others around them. Facebook is their only mode of communication – digital data flying around the airwaves where it’s possible to not mean what you say and to have what you say be taken as meaning something else. Loneliness continues to be a massive problem as dating sites go on proliferating throughout cyberspace.

Others are saying it better of course. A quick hunt posing my searching challenge to Google, “what social networking is doing to communication”, turned up a variety of responses, as you would naturally expect. But I was interested to read Scott Coffman’s blog which gave a couple of pointers some relevant research, and especially Stephen Marche’s well-written article for The Atlantic, which as I intimated, puts it in better terms than I have yet found: “We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.” His article makes more reference to the kind of research that is relevant here, which relieves me of the work of which I largely feel incapable anyway, and also highlights his thoughts beautifully with the haunting final scene from the aforementioned The Social Network:

“The film’s most indelible scene, the one that may well have earned it an Oscar, was the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking—a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber. We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.”

I called this post ‘silent in a noisy world’. This had two intended meanings. The first was this idea that there is a lot of noise in the world of social networks but perhaps silence when it comes to real communication and understanding between people. In my opinion the best place for this is always face to face. I hope people see that and continue to try to make space for that in their lives where it’s important.

But secondly I considered it as a challenge to any of us today who feel we can take it on, to exercise quiet in the midst of a world ablaze with sound. Perhaps we often feel that we must say something, we must contribute to the unending torrent of soundbites and opinions, probably because we are desperate for that which humanity has always cried out for: affirmation, recognition, a sense of worth. We don’t want to be drowned out and for any chance of that to be lost. But I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those that speak the loudest would privately admit they haven’t found what they were looking for.

And maybe silence isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe I can delete my Facebook account and still lead a socially successful life – in fact, the odds might be looking better for me at least now that I’ve left. But I think there’s a power, too, in silence, and an authority. (And, frankly, a retention of privacy!) As King Solomon once observed, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” (Proverbs 10:19) Silence might also then give place for that other great practice which is slowly being eroded for the next e-generation: deep thought, and meditation. But that’s a whole other post…

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