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By Scott Jacobs

timewaster The accelerating pace of the depression seems to have spurred an up-tick in our desire to share every detail of our experience in it. Now no less a personage than Bruce Sterling has called our bluff, deeming the explosion of Twitter tweets and Facebook posts examples of the poverty of our souls.

Sterling, the “visionary in residence” at Wired.com, made his remarks at the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin in one of his famous “rants” that was so far-reaching even he is waiting for the podcast to see what he actually said.

Virginia Heffernan, the new media columnist in the New York Times Magazine, is pretty sure the gist of his talk was that “connectivity is poverty.”

“Only the poor – defined broadly as those without better options –– are obsessed with their connections,” she wrote. “Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away.

“The connections that feel like wealth to many of us –– –call us the impoverished, we who treasure our smartphones and tally our Facebook friends –– are in fact meager, more meager even than inflated dollars. What’s worse, these connections are liabilities that we pretend are assets. We live on the Web in these hideous conditions of overcrowding only because –– it seems so obvious –– we cannot afford privacy. And then, lest we confront our horror, we call this cramped ghetto our happy home.”

The questioning of the value of the new social networks -–– which Sterling started, but Heffernan brought to a head ––– has resulted in a cascade of responses from the blogs and bloggers who follow such things. Tweets were flying even before Sterling left the room in Austin. Of course, with only 140 characters to work with, most were fleeting, snarky or self-absorbed. “I had a seat in back of the room. He looked confused, but I couldn’t see all that good.”

A few days later, Marc Savlov attempted a more philosophical response in his Austin Chronicle weblog. The issue Sterling raises is whether we are “oversharing” on the net and how that affects our social interactions, he said. Then Savlov gave three examples of past, present and future social networks:

“This is who we were:  communities of individuals who forged identities, selves, and lives via formal (or informal) interactions within a societal whole. We met one another at home, school, work, play, and everywhere else, and we did it all face to face.”

“This is who we are: communities of individuals who are online half the time; often inseparable from our laptops, cloistered in the muted, ambient click-type drone of coffee shops or working late into the night alone in home offices; hearing the quiet pattering of unclunky keyboards; the kids in the kitchen instant-messaging before the bus arrives, after the bus arrives, on the bus; Dad scrolling through Slate/Wired/Salon or eyeing the tumbling economic dice; Mom wondering why she even bothered to get that now silly-seeming Realtor’s license; chatting; texting; iPhoning; linked-in; sharing our individual triumphs and tragedies, from Obama to Mumbai, in real time, for all the online world to see, read, and share.

“This is who we will be: a single community; global; linked-in; variegated and living lives beyond the passé 20th century notions of borders, beyond languages; a new species almost . . . keenly aware of the marketers and corporate data-mining that exist primarily to sell us back to ourselves; and able to take advantage of the strange sense of slow self-empowerment that arrived near fully formed once we realized that privacy as it once was is no longer privacy as it has become, or needs to be. The more we share ––– online –– the less we have to fear.”

Okay, so maybe that last one’s a stretch. The premise behind South by Southwest is to get people together in the present to talk about the future, so a little high-falutin’ rhetoric about a single, global, linked-in community that transcends borders and languages can be excused.

Not so easy to excuse is the paucity of genuine thought in all these new social media forms, as ubiquitous and compelling as they have become.

Sterling’s own critique of the social networks -–– in retrospect, he prefers to call it a discussion rather than a critique –– took off from his own recent experience as author of a new book, written on paper, and distributed through book stores for, horror of horror, money.

“What I do is I write a lot of words in a row,” he said. “I mean, like a whole lot of words, not even character count but actual words. Then I go back and I restructure them and move them into other sorts of methods. In theory, they have a dramatic arc and a denouement and a coherent story line. And then I send them to my agent who then sends them to an editor who then sends them to either a higher-ranking editor or a publisher -– who then moves them through a distributor, who is really kind of the magic key to the whole business . . . And then it would go out to either a large number of independent book stores or chain stores and then it would be retailed and people would pay money for it.”

Yes, Facebook has become a mechanism for creating your own community of friends. And yes, it sure beats the postal system for sending out pictures of your baby, copies of articles you read and want to share, and –– let’s be honest here –– self-promotional links and materials.

For people who used to work but now stay at home unemployed, self-employed or caring for a child, it replaces the everyday conversations that used to take place around the office water cooler. (Come to think of it, it probably serves the same function for many people who still go to work and still drink the water.)

But how much of all this is just a waste of time? Do I really care what kind of plant you resemble? Whether you woke up with a sore shoulder? Who’s your favorite Beatle?

If the only people we were talking to were our nearest and dearest friends, maybe all this oversharing would be tolerable. But the impetus behind social networks is to build your friends list. And there is every opportunity to do so. (Including an app that scours your email address book to invite, with a single click, all of them to become your friend.) So we all do it. Like there’s some kind of prize for having the most friends.

There is a downside to having too many friends that nobody tells you about. Yes, you can tell them all about your latest accomplishments; but so can they tell you about theirs (as well as the health of their dog.) Recently, I checked into my own Facebook account and discovered the first page of recent posts only went back one hour.  It took six more pages of click-throughs to get back to when I last checked in –– yesterday.

What we need on these social network sites is a new tag called “Time wasters.” We could set up a website for it: timewaster.com. Under this heading, we could include:

• 25 Things You Don’t Want to Know About Me.
• Uncut birth videos
• My Favorite Cereal
• The Best of Spam
• I’m Not Your Friend (the best rejection letters sent to friend requests.)

I’m sure that’s only scraping the surface of useless posts on Facebook, Twitter, Ning, et al. The question we all have to ask ourselves is: once the surface is scraped away, is there anything else of value we really need to know?


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