Social networking is truly ubiquitous. Not because it’s accessible from almost anywhere on almost any device, but because its explosion over the past decade is shaping our culture. Social networking is less a reflection of human interaction than it is an authentic component, necessitating governments to reassess real-world laws to address cyberspace concerns. Even if you’re too “cool” or computer-illiterate for Facebook, your life is still affected.
Many of the questions surrounding social networking revolve around privacy and ask whether or not society has built a generation of over-sharers, handing out their personal details willy-nilly and putting themselves into real life danger. I’ll admit I share this concern for privacy, but not because of the typical ‘watch out for stalkers and predators’ routine. For me, the question is whether or not the personal life is dead.
If social networking is everywhere, then online and offline behaviour are now one in the same. Telling the world where you are, who you’re with and what you’re wearing – neatly sewn together with a one-dimensional quote and a general self-absorption – was once a cliché, but now it’s a day-to-day activity. You’re expected to strike up a conversation in a café, and then keep the ball rolling on Facebook; or build a network of contacts over LinkedIn, and then capitalise on the relationships in the office. The behavioural norms of the physical have always influenced the virtual, but now the opposite is becoming increasingly true.
This behavioural overlap is most worrying for the personal life. With a quick scroll down your Facebook or Twitter or whatever feed, it’s easy to assume people have little care for their own privacy, demonstrating the definition of openness across their status updates, photos and blogs. Most users want as many likes, comments and re-tweets as possible because they want others to be interested in their lives – it’s like building themselves into celebrity status. But considering the merging of real life and cyber cultures, if you’re happy for people to probe your life online, why wouldn’t these people expect the same freedom offline?
I was over-sharing before it was in fashion. Most of my childhood and teen years were spent gabbing non-stop about my life, thoughts and problems to my friends, regardless of if they wanted to know. Sometimes, the contents of these conversations would leak – commonly known as ‘gossiping’ – and I would be justifiably angry. Did I give express written consent for my life to become the talk of the town? If I revealed my deepest and darkest secrets in an unspoken circle of silence, it meant I strictly didn’t want the rest of the world to know. It may have only been a few years ago, but those in days, I didn’t need to be okay with gossiping.
These days, I keep a lot more of my personal life on a ‘need to know’ basis. In a more social network-enveloped time, where the online behaviour of freely peeking at the finest details of someone’s life has every potential to creep into reality, it feels as if everyone around me is conditioned to assume all information is publically known and available – heck, I’m probably just as guilty. I’m more paranoid than ever about how easily anything I say could become common knowledge almost instantly, as if carrying a mental disclaimer, “Share at your own risk.” If other people circulate my private words, I might consider myself a victim of gossip, but why should they? They’re just acting with the same openness social networks have accustomed us to. There’d be no one to blame but myself.
It seems as if we’re all going to have to choose between two equally-undesirable options: Accept our personal lives as well and truly dead, spreading our words and actions openly and at the mercy of the masses; or alternatively, we could zip up the private details of our lives entirely, taking a more literal approach to the personal life. Choosing the latter, however, creates a possible danger to personal wellbeing. There is such thing as an unhealthy amount of time spent alone, and if individuals choose to keep their stresses and anxieties to themselves, we as a society become a step closer to the supposed seclusion many commentators believe social networks are perpetuating.
Social networking isn’t going away and is likely to keep becoming more accessible, prevalent and engaging, but it’s also in its relative infancy, with its usage undoubtedly set to transform dramatically in the coming years. The real life and cyber cultures are only going to mesh further, but the more ingrained social networking is in our lives, the more our behaviour will adapt to meet the needs of the situation. If the personal life is truly at risk, there’s every reason our behaviour will evolve accordingly.
At best, the personal life may not be dead, but perhaps going through a transition period.
Words by VINCENT VARNEY, Sydney-based writer who also works in the marketing communications field. Follow him on Twitter @VincentVarney.