iSelf

Living in the changing world of communication technology.

Social Networking and the New Me

Is social networking making you a different, even better person?

Two recent events; I just published a new book, Relational Being, and my grand-daughter has just told me how thrilled she is at the number of friends she has on Facebook. The two events are related in an important way: There are now over three hundred million users of Facebook, half of whom log on every day of the week. There are also some 340 million people who read blogs, six million users of twitter, and millions of additional folks who spend an hour or two on email each day. These are only samples of the range and numbers currently engaged in some form of social networking. Now consider the kinds of thoughts spinning through our heads as we spend our time networking:

    “This will interest them”
    “This is a good picture of me”
    “She will enjoy this”
    “I want them to hear my opinion on this”
    “She’s attractive”
    “I need to tell him about this”
    “I wonder if they will like the music I like”
    “Maybe what I want to say will upset him”
    “Maybe I should invite her to be my friend”

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What stands out about all these sorts of thoughts is that they are all conscious of relationship. They take into account of “how I come across to others” and “how they will react.” We communicate or follow those we find interesting, attractive, exciting, or useful. We spend time chatting with people we want to help, attract, entertain, and so on. We form opinions in order to spread them far and wide. We swim in a sea of relationships.

Now compare: Sixty years ago one of the most widely read books in America was David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. This book contrasted what Riesman and his colleagues viewed as two major personality styles, the inner directed and the other directed. The other directed style sounds much like the social networker. Other directed people were said to be concerned about the impression they made on others, were sensitive to changing styles and opinions, and avoided making decisions alone. In contrast, inner directed people was more focused on developing their own, individual viewpoint. They had a sense of direction and valued personal coherence.

Of course, any dichotomy such as this is an over-simplification. But it does give us food for thought. What is most interesting in this case is that Riesman championed the inner directed personality, and was fearful of its disappearing from the cultural scene. As he saw it, inner directed people had character, an “inner gyroscope” that they could rely on to determine what was worthwhile vs. worthless, right vs. wrong. In contrast, the other directed person seemed like a “yes man,” one who would agree to anything, who was superficial and lacking moral backbone.

Riesman’s view represents a long-standing tradition in America, one we call individualist. We honor the “self-made man,” one who “listens to a different drummer,” and who “does it my way.” We evaluate individuals in terms of their grades in school and their performance on the job. We honor those who are motivated to do well, and we punish those who aren’t committed enough to do succeed. We love our heroes, and we imprison or execute the individual who decides to “do evil.” If you are not self-directed, you are a wimp or a wus.

In these terms, with the dramatic increase in social networking we may be witnessing a major cultural shift. The “new me” may be very much like Riesman’s other directed personality. Are we now beginning to realize his worst fears? This is really a question worthy of serious discussion. As we take on the new technologies of relationship, what are we becoming? Who am I now, what do I stand for, what is worth doing? These are all questions worth pondering.

Here is where my book, Relational Being, comes into play. In the book I first take a critical look at the individualist tradition. We pay a high personal cost for this tradition. We are confronted with continuous evaluation of our performance – in schools, on the job, in our friendship circles, and so on. Questions such as, am I good enough, intelligent enough, attractive enough, strong enough…can plague us for a lifetime. Under these conditions it is no wonder that we now have school programs to boost our self-esteem. There is also another way of looking at people who do it their own way: narcissistic and self-centered. And, when you think about it, heroes never make it on their own. There is always a network of people who make it happen. Think of the football quarterback: Will he ever throw a touchdown pass without a line to defend him and player skilled in catching the ball? And when I mentioned that we should give careful thought to what we are becoming, could you think without language? To think about issues like  “character,” “self-esteem” “superficiality” and “relationship” requires a language, and we have no language without participating in relationships.

Now consider some of the up-sides of what I call a relational way of living. Isn’t it better to make difficult decisions by consulting many people than going it alone? A decision that reflects and integrates divergent points of view is surely likely to be more successful. And, as we engage in many different relations – with people far and near – aren’t we enriched? We are more likely to see many points of view, to appreciate many ways of life – and not simply follow “the only way.” When you look at it this way, most of our deadly conflicts in the world result from people who “see it” in only one way. Also consider that when we hold individuals responsible for crimes, we silently suppress the ways we might have contributed. Drug dealers are sent to prison; their buyers go free. Crime and poverty are closely linked, but most people don’t want to sacrifice their earnings to alleviate poverty. They would far rather have a second or third home than share.

So, if social networking helps us to become more relational in our ways of thinking and acting, perhaps the “new me” is a better me. I will have more to say about these matters in future blogs. In the meantime, comments are welcomed. Perhaps we shall all be enriched by the dialogue.

Kenneth J. Gergen is a Senior Research Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore, as well as President of the Taos Institute.

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