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       Volume 10 |Issue 31 | August 12, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Technology Traumas and Online Etiquette

Farah Ghuznavi

It only took me the better part of six months and a fair bit of agonising, but I have now (finally!) successfully completed the process that has been dominating my life. I am the proud - and relieved - owner of a new mobile phone. The process of selecting a replacement was not only a delicate one, it was tortuous – which brand, which model, which apps? They say, correctly, that technology simplifies our lives by making it possible to do things more conveniently, but such convenience undoubtedly comes at a price; And by that, I'm not just referring to the often hefty price-tags for state-of-the-art equipment like iPhones, iPads and so on.

For example, by the time I held my new Samsung Galaxy Mini in my sweaty palms, I had put at risk any number of friendships as a result of the over-sharing of my anxiety over replacing my fast-fading Motorola. Put simply, I was just not ready to let go of my trusty mobile despite its tenuous hold on life. After all, it had done sterling service for the last couple of years; and survived any number of accidents, to boot. Indeed, so devoted was I to my phone - and grateful for its pivotal role in my life - that I briefly considered replacing my trusty Moto-Razr (and its suitably cutting-edge nomenclature) with the bizarrely named Moto-Crazr (not cool, Motorola dudes, how could you think any adult would buy a phone with a name like that?!).

As it turned out, the choice was taken out of my hands by the unavailability of the latter model, which forced me to look further afield. And since I have seen what happens to the owners of iPhones (who become chronically unable to do anything other than babble about their wonders of their new pet, however low-tech they may have been in the past), and my wallet wouldn't stand for it anyway, it took an embarrassingly long time - and indeed, an "intervention" from one of my closer friends - to finally get me into phone-functional mode with my new Samsung.

Don't get me wrong. Despite the fact that I am no technology junkie, I love my mobile phone. That's part of the problem. I was so attached to my Motorola that it was borderline traumatic to give it up, despite the fact that it was getting to the point where it was cruel to make the poor thing remain in service so far beyond its natural retirement age! I can barely remember how we coped with life before mobile phones, and I certainly can't imagine functioning these days without my own. Which got me wondering, how did we manage without them in the lives we lived just a decade ago?

The answer, unfortunately, opened up a whole new can of worms. To my dismay, I began to realise that the pre-mobile phone era may have actually involved a lot more free time. Despite the convenience of accessing friends and colleagues while on the go, it's true that that very ease of access gives us less breathing space in a world where everyone is so closely connected. As a result, I think it's probably true that we all had more "disposable" time in the earlier period -- time that was not spent on text messaging, and inevitably receiving or returning calls from people with whom one may (or may not!) wish to converse. And that is even without considering - in the case of those so inclined - time spent taking pictures of random objects or playing games (and in the case of the latter, I refer to the digital kind rather than the social/conversational/mind variety).

The same holds true of our online connectivity. We are undoubtedly more efficient, but probably significantly less relaxed. So it's highly debatable whether technology is the unmixed blessing that it is so often portrayed as being. An article by William Deresiewicz raises some interesting questions about the nature of friendship in the modern world. He argues that in a time where "friendship" is considered the ideal way of relating to people as differently connected to each other as siblings, romantic partners, parents and children, spouses, teachers and students (and even bosses who do not want to be perceived as bossy), we are at risk of diluting the notion of friendship to the point of irrelevance.

I suspect he has a point. When someone has over 500 friends on a Facebook page - and many people have close to that number or more - it is hard to see how communication that is reduced to the lowest common denominator can be very meaningful. After all, presumably you wouldn't share intimate details of your life with all 500 of these people with equal ease. Or would you? I suppose it all depends. I don't agree with Deresiewicz's grim assessment that once we decide to make friends with everyone, we inevitably forget how to be friends with anyone. But I do believe we risk devaluing genuine friendship by implying that a significant degree of intimacy is simultaneously attainable with dozens - possibly hundreds - of different people.

Another issue worth considering is that social networking sites tend to bring out the exhibitionist in all of us. As a result, we often communicate things online that we might not have done with the same set of individuals in person. At times, you can find yourself regretting some of what you posted, simply because you forgot just how many people would read it. Of course, for people who are narcissistic or naturally exhibitionist, that's not a problem; but they may not constitute the majority of people online.

And in the case of a small minority of people, excessive sharing can bring out their inner psychopath. According to one psychiatrist, things that people would not say as part of a normal conversation somehow become acceptable to post online because individuals are sending out messages while sitting behind a computer screen. The Internet is potentially a haven for passive-aggressive behaviour, with some individuals using the opportunity to snipe at others without having to deal with the consequences of doing this more directly. This is because it provides the illusion of being able to say or do what you want with impunity. As Dr Wallace of Johns Hopkins University says, to improve our interactions, we need to examine our own behaviour. He recommends that before posting anything people consider the following question: "Is this something I'd want someone to tell me?"

For some people, the virtual world has also become a place to air and exacerbate serious grievances related to, for example, the breakup of a marriage. Things that most people would argue are better done in relative privacy and - at the risk of sounding old-fashioned - preferably face-to-face. In one memorable instance, Stephanie, a lawyer in Texas, described how her former classmate posted a series of messages late on a Friday night, referring to her husband: "He's decided that he can't stand me, he wants a divorce, we've only been married five months, I'm pregnant, he's on the phone with his ex-wife right now, asking her to take him back." As Stephanie said, she couldn't understand how her classmate decided to log onto Facebook at a time like that - "... I would call my best friend crying, I would leave the house – I don't know what I would do – but writing on Facebook would be the last thing on my mind!"

Social networking sites undoubtedly provide a wonderful tool with which to maintain contact with distant friends in a globalised world; and ones who live closer by as well, if that's what you want. It's a good way to get in touch with people that you may have lost along the way, and stay in touch with them once you have reconnected. Above all, it's a phenomenal way of disseminating information with speed and ease. And as such, at its worst, it can facilitate the sharing of information that may be either highly sensitive or totally redundant. So next time you're getting ready to post something, it might just be worth thinking twice about the quality and nature of the information you're about to send out before you press that button on your keyboard...



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