What can we make of social networking? Is it really social or anti-social? I think of it as a wonderful way to keep in touch with old friends. And I have made new friends, with people I probably would never otherwise have met.
Some I have friended aren’t real friends. They are virtual friends, a new kind of relationship, different than anything before, most something less than what we call an acquaintance.
In social networking we touch each other only figuratively. No senses are used other than the sight of pixels on a screen. There is no touch, no smell, no sound of the human voice.
Is this way of relating a good thing? Like most tools, there are plusses and minuses. Each innovation brings with it advancement but also the possibility of loss. Take the simplest of tools: a knife can be used to cut bread or to kill.
Long before social networking, cell phones or computers, I lived in Africa and there thought about an ancient innovation, the mirror. I wrote this about that experience:
The hornbill plagued the school. Swooping from the blue sky, it descended by the dormitory door. There with its hard beak it hammered at the glass until only the metal frame remained. To the consternation of the teachers the bird shattered new windows as soon as they were placed.
It was as though the hornbill sensed something malignant about the window.
Meanwhile at a nearby mission a golden crested crane with a broken wing preened in front of long windows, strutting its erratic mating dance attempting to attract its reflected image. The crane would end its life dancing there in the false infatuation, beguiled by something without substance, dying in unrequited love.
How like the crane we are here in a wonderland of mirrors, a place where our reflections are only steps away. In shopping malls our images are available from three angles at once; we find ourselves on the side of new glass buildings.
Most mornings I begin with the sight of my own face before I view that of another. It is not a real face I see, merely an image of one. It lacks depth and only gives the illusion of existing in space. It mimics me perfectly.
For a while in Kenya I lived with only one hand-held mirror. Mainly I relied upon my wife to report the news of my appearance; her judgments were necessary about my appearance were necessary. Now I need only consult a mirror.
Perhaps the hornbill knew better. Is anything gained by mirrors?
Narcissus drowned admiring his own reflection. But mirrors also liberate us from dependence upon others’ judgments of our appearance.
Social networking is a powerful tool. It can either expand our relationships in new ways or it can reduce them to pale reflections of our own egos. Like the knife and mirror, the choice is ours. We can either nourish or kill ourselves with our own innovations.