Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Are social networks a great thing for our kids?

Noted web guru and City University of New York Associate Professor Jeff Jarvis believes our kids benefit greatly from growing up online.

Young people today need never lose track of their friends, as I have with most of mine. That’s not only because they leave bits of themselves online that are findable via Google, but also because they will remain linked in ever-expanding social networks, such as Facebook.

How many of your high school friends could you contact today? For me, the answer is three, plus one junior high friend. Jarvis sees that number being 3 dozen for our kids. I wonder if that is really a good thing. Are we supposed to maintain those close ties forever? It sounds sort of like growing up and then staying in a really small town. It seems like history, in the US at least, has been driven by people getting the heck out of those small towns.

According to the marketing firm Alloy, 96% of teens and tweens use social networks; they are now universal. And I think this means that they will maintain friendships longer in life. Which, in turn, could lead to richer friendships. No longer can you escape relationships when you move on; you will be tied to your past - and to the consequences of your actions. I hope this could make us better friends.

I’m not sure I buy this one. That kind of maturity about dealing with people comes with age. I don’t think 16 year olds will start acting nicer towards each other just because they are all on Facebook. Thinking about the longer term consequences of behavior simply does not come naturally to teens. In fact, I think the opposite is more likely and Facebook becomes just another place to engage in the bullying and the cliquishness that defines growing up in the US.

But because you can’t escape your past, this also means that you could do one stupid thing in life, forever memorialised in Google, and you are embarrassed in perpetuity.

The Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, jokes that we all should be able to change our names and start fresh at age 21. But I think we’ll be protected by mutually assured humiliation: we will all have our moments of youthful indiscretion and so we will have to forgive others’ if we want them to ignore ours. So you inhaled - so did I, what of it? That will be the golden rule of the social internet. And I say that could make us more tolerant.

That sounds great in theory, but human nature is much more hypocritical than that. People today have no problem condemning behavior in others that they in turn engage in. Is one generation of openness really going to change that?

As much as I’d like to believe that the social web will lead to this great awakening in social behavior for the next generation, I just don’t see it happening that quickly, if at all.

What do you think?

Written by COD
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