Social networking: it gives, it takes, and it messes with your head

I love social networking. I’m on facebook, and love the way that allows me to keep tabs on important events in my friends’ lives, when otherwise we would completely lose touch. If you’re someone’s facebook ‘friend’, a connection has been retained, and it feels easier to arrange to meet up when you get the chance and have a place to start the conversation. I’m also a recent addition to Twitter, where I tweet mainly about my work and sciencey/techy stuff in general – that move was provoked by a seminar at the University about improving your digital footprint, leaving a professional trail on the internet that will be picked up when future employers Google you. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time updating my pages on (which is linked to Twitter) this week for that reason.

And then there’s this blog, where I share the cool stuff I find on the internet, but increasingly work through what I’m thinking about with the aid of Google… and post it in case anyone else finds my mental meanderings helpful.

I’m used to communicating in typed messages – my working life is pretty much organised via e-mail, I can send in excess of 40 every day, and always check my work e-mail if I’m at home for the day. Over the years I have pefected the art of crafting e-mail carefully, of making my point and getting a response without offending. Those who know me well can read an e-mail I’ve written, look between the lines, and know what I am really saying.

The difficulty with social networks is that there isn’t necessarily that pre-existing connection. The vast majority of my facebook friends are people I know and have spent considerable time with at some point in my life. Hence, I’m able to bear my soul a bit or kick off about something (usually politics) and they know I’m not a wierdo angry ranter but someone who cares passionately about certain things.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s dream that we should all be wonderfully open and interconnected via facebook, even with people we’ve never physically met, my experience is that a relationship which pretty much starts and has been sustained via facebook can go spectacularly pear-shaped. Be careless in phrasing your messages and you can give completely the wrong impression, sometimes it’s simply the difference between an exclamation mark and a full stop; chatting away in a string of hundreds of messages can give the impression of genuine interest, when actually you’re bored and just looking for distraction; pay attention to what your new ‘friend’ is doing, be a bit too enthusiastic in ‘liking’ and commenting on their status updates, and you look like a stalker. And once you start looking like a stalker, it’s hard to get involved in their lives without strengthening this impression…

My advice would be, if you meet someone you get on with on facebook, meet up as soon as you can or at the very least talk to them on the phone, then ease off the facebook contact. I didn’t, and I deeply regret it. I fear that friendship will never recover.

Twitter is another thing altogether, as everyone else on Twitter can potentially read everything you say – and you only have 140 characters to say it in. It’s easy to become completely inane, share too much, or start a campaign against something without even trying. And that’s when you’re stone cold sober. Public figures can face calls for resignation over what they tweet, when it is actually really hard to tweet well and very easy to say something stupid in front of hundreds of thousands of people (or 16, in my case). I guess I can come across as a bit self-important on Twitter as I am very aware it is a public forum and tweet as if my boss was listening: I tend to focus on the good stuff in my working life, I don’t gossip and try not to go all ranty… although sometimes, I confess, I do succumb to Ben Goldacre’s provocation.

I suppose I could give it all up and walk away, and never tweet or blog or post a facebook status ever again. What stops me is that there are so many people I would never hear from again if I did. I would miss those snippets of information, the unfolding of our stories and the possibility of pulling our storylines together again, the rejoicing over success and sympathising over tragedy. I’m also aware of the connections I would miss out on forming because so many of us are now linked in this way, both personally and professionally.

However, it does make you wonder how genuine, how robust, these online connections really are. I am coming to realise that the friends who really make a difference to me, who I carry in my heart, are the ones who don’t rely on a status update to know who I am and what’s going on in my life. They are the ones I see in person, the ones I talk to face-to-face, the ones who read me completely and like what they find.


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