Social networks and the agony of online communities

20 years ago, the Internet was starting to get massive and like every technological revolution, its consequences to the world were still unknown. We were dreaming about all the new possibilities, about communicating to any place in the world freely, with any person of any culture. We had in front of us a rapidly growing technology, that could lead to unify the humanity into one big community, without discrimination.

In those years people were starting to embrace instant messaging systems like ICQ. The way of socializing online were chats and forums, which were basically the same: a shared place, a public and open place, sometimes under a certain topic, where people could meet and talk, share views, know each other and finally socialize with people that can be in any part of the world, coming from any reality.

I call those places, forums, and open chats, ‘public square’ where you could go to meet people. You could just watch, maybe talk to the people or maybe talk to a single person in a more private way. In those places you could get the sense of diversity, recognizing the many different kinds of people present. You could get close to someone or keep distance according to your own view, you could think about some topic and even change your mind based on the experience of others and your exposure to that diversity. That experience had never been so easy to have.

These ‘public square’ places were the Internet version of our natural way of socializing as human beings, but removing space and, to some degree, time barriers in forums. Conversations were always available to the public, you didn’t have to wait for someone at a precise moment to keep talking. Unfortunately a few years later, all that open world started to suffer a long and sad decay.

With the arising of social networks, ‘public squares’ were replaced by this extremely attractive and compelling invention. Now you don’t have to go anywhere, everybody else comes to you. Social networks are based on presenting you a world centered in yourself. A terrible distortion of reality that is the perfect candy for your ego.

Today on Facebook you have your own ‘house’, you own your wall and you can do whatever you want with it, so you put all your stuff there. This feeling of ownership is really important and explains why so many people forget that they are actually making public their private life. Now I’m no longer walking to the public square to meet my friends, I just say whatever I want in my own place and I’m so important that my friends will come to my house to talk about what I just said. Isn’t it awesome to have so much attention? They must care a lot about me… False!!

Actually, your friends are receiving what you said in the privacy of your home as if you were shouting on their garden. That garden that is like a newspaper specially designed to make the person living in that house aware of everyone’s private life. He can stalk as much as he wants and nobody will notice.

The result: no more open world, you never leave your home. you just read the newspaper in your garden instead. Now you don’t have access to know different realities because the people you have on Facebook is basically people that you already know. Using Facebook you can’t look for different realities either because if you’re not at home, you’re at someone else’s home. There are no public common places, Facebook is a fictional place designed for you by an algorithm, nobody has the same view, it is not like a public square where everyone sees the same place.

And just like bad television, social networks exploit our most primitive instincts, horribly limiting the potential of such a powerful tool like the Internet.

But unlike bad television that you can turn off, social networks are so important that can’t be ignored so easily. Especially because they are really good announcing, at least to the few people you know, what you want to say. So I won’t be able to avoid the temptation of shouting in your garden that I just wrote a new entry in my blog!