Thanks a lot, Time magazine. Thanks to the recent cover story on Twitter, all the naysayers and cultured despisers of social networking think they're experts. I find myself in arguments every other day about the relative merits and dangers (remember, I hang out with a lot of evangelicals) of Facebook, Twitter and other manifestations of "virtual community."
For the record, it's become cliche to accuse me of being narcissistic--and, consequently, hypocritical--because I participate in such heathen activities as tweeting and updating my status. Yes, I wrote a book about narcissism. Yes, I'm active on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I maintain two blogs. Yes, all these activities can attract and even indulge narcissistic personalities; they can even facilitate a person's descent into more narcissistic tendencies than they came with.
I'd like to submit two contrary opinions to the handwringing groupthink that has led to associating social networking with vice:
1. Your meatspaces are just as vulnerable to vainglory as my online forums. (Never heard of "meatspace"? Ask one of your hellbound virtual community addicts.)
2. Maybe--just maybe--there's more going on online than mere exhibitionism.
For all the whining about the way Facebook degrades the concept of friendship, the first friendship tier at least of the vast majority of profile-keepers is made up of real, live friendships. Same with Twitter. Some such friendships may have gone dormant over time, while others are resorting to online interactions because the franticness of life is making it increasingly difficult for them to see one another face to face. That's right: at least part of what motivates at least some people to seek one another out online is that they want to but, due to larger social forces, can't sync up their schedules to look one another in the eye.
In addition, the fact that a Facebook profile or a Twitter feed functions as a sort of archive, an album of verbal snapshots, means that users can build on one another's comments and links and status updates and everything else. I've been soliciting jokes to share at church every week on both Facebook and Twitter, and more often than not the initial solicitation generates wildly creative riffing on themes and ideas from people who wouldn't otherwise get to play together. That's not shameful; that's delightful and immensely gratifying.
Meanwhile, the collapse of intimacy is no great secret. Countless relationships among people who see each other even daily are notoriously underdeveloped--whether at work, at church or in the home. The proper accusation to make against Facebook and Twitter et al. is perhaps not exhibitionism or narcissism but escapism, because as much as anything, these social networks indicate that people, by and large, would rather be somewhere other than where they are.
So I think my counterarguments against these cultured despisers are interrelated. Instead of lamenting the decline of western civilization as evidenced by its broad-based willingness to resort to 140-character descriptions of its favorite breakfast food, perhaps we should be asking, "Why doesn't anyone want to be where they are?" Or--more to the point, pastors, employers, teachers and family members--"Why don't they want to be here with me?"
Let me quickly add that escapism is not good. We are meant to be where we are; that should be self-evident. But equally evident is that more and more we aren't; and that's as much an effect as it is a cause.