History may record the late 20th century as the beginning of the end of western civilization. The Computer Age gave way to the Internet Age, which is giving way in the 21st century to the Social Networking Age. Technology continues to progress at a blistering rate. The current generation of consumer-level microprocessors are one thousand times faster than the most advanced supercomputers of just twenty years ago. Connection speeds have improved at a similar exponential rate. The internet is everywhere. The current crop of mobile devices would look like technology from “Star Trek” to someone from the 1990s. Our society is wired (or wireless) and constantly connected to the internet. There’s a price to be paid for being “always on,” however. The brief, random, and artificial nature of the internet has made us confused, distracted, and superficial.
If brevity is the soul of wit, our wired society is at least witty. Internet shorthand, whether it’s the character limit imposed by services such as Twitter, overly simplistic Facebook “Likes,” or IM acronyms, creates confusion through lack of clarity. On Twitter, for example, users are limited to 140-character updates. These stunted messages force adoption of abbreviation. Common phrases such as “OK. Thanks. Goodbye.” become “Kthnxbai.” To the uninitiated, this string of characters is meaningless gibberish. Sorting out the meaning of these truncated phrases leads to confusion and misunderstanding. It’s just as easy to misunderstand systems that are overly simplistic, like Facebook’s “Likes.” A system that’s too simple fails to accurately capture the nuances of real-life thoughts, beliefs, and preferences. A Facebook user might “Like” the Republican party based on a belief in fiscal conservatism. If the same user is a social liberal, however, they may also “Like” the Democratic party. Based on their “Likes,” one would be at a loss to explain their political views. This would lead to confusion at best, and outright misinterpretation at worst. The same is true of instant messaging jargon. The sheer number of acronyms employed by users is confusing: deciphering their meaning, more so. Woe be to the sender of a “LOL” IM in response to news of a breakup or death in the family. Experienced IM users know, of course, that “LOL” means “Laughing Out Loud,” but newer users could just as easily think it to mean “Lots Of Love” or “Lonely OnLine.” By embracing the brevity and simplification of our lives, the internet causes chaos and confusion, leading to social breakdown.
Another element contributing to the decline of our society is the random nature of the internet. Email spam, online ads, and search engine results bombard us with information: some relevant, some not. Our email inboxes are a prime example of this distracting randomness. Nigerian princes promising unfathomable riches – if only we share our name, address, bank account and Social Security numbers – distract us from the bill notifications sent from our cable company. Links to porn pictures compete with the pictures Grandma sent from her latest cruise. Males and females alike are spammed by ads for cheap Viagra. Thankfully, there are spam filters in most popular email programs. They are not always effective, however. Oftentimes, spam filters fail to catch every junk message; other times, they catch too much, forcing users to sift through a mountain of bogus, distracting messages anyway. The random garbage that piles up in our email distracts us from the truly important communication we receive. Even run-of-the-mill websites are an exercise in distracting randomness. Nearly every site on the Web has advertising on it. These flashing words and videos naturally distract the eye, leading users away from the actual content of the page. Trying to read a newspaper article online becomes an exercise in futility when ads for techno-gadgets, concert tickets, and a thousand other random products distract us from the box score of the latest football game. If we run a search to find a “better” site, we’ll likely end up just as distracted. Googling a common term may return hundreds of thousands of results. While most may be relevant to our search, many of the results may have nothing to do with what we’re looking for thanks to SEO (Search Engine Optimization: tricks website owners use to make their page appear higher in a search engine’s results). Trial and error is the only process available for determining if a link is germane to one’s search. Sifting the virtual wheat from the digital chaff distracts us from whatever our original reason for being online was.
Some go online to make a social connection, but the artificiality of the internet makes that nearly impossible. Online dating sites, massively multiplayer online games, and social networking sites claim to offer genuine interaction, but instead promote superficiality because of their artificial nature. Dating sites like Match.com allow users to create a profile or browse other profiles to connect romantically. These profiles are sales pitches, designed to portray the user in the best possible light. By answering a few simple personality questions and uploading a picture, the user says, in essence, “Look at me! Don’t you want to be with me?” The desperation and artificial sense of competition created by online dating sites leads users to present an inauthentic version of themselves. With a glut of superficial profiles to sort through, users make snap, superficial judgments based on how cute a user’s picture or how riské their profile is. In MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games, like World of Warcraft), the game itself creates an artificial ranking system. Based on the in-game items a player has collected, the player’s character is assigned a “gear score.” For many players, this gear score is all that matters when deciding to ally with another player. Instead of deciding to forge a relationship based on personality or playing skill, these players rely on an artificial number. This superficial ranking prevents many enjoyable connections from ever being forged. Numbers are important in social networking as well. Sites like MySpace and Facebook list the number of “friends” a user has. This friend count becomes a kind of prestige in the online community. The more friends one has, the more popular and desirable a connection with them becomes. This artificiality leads users to collect online friends like people used to collect baseball cards. There’s little real attachment to individual friends (cards), save a few rare and important ones (Babe Ruth’s rookie card). This superficial treatment of real people cheapens the online experience and contributes to our communal decline.
The internet – glorious arcade, shopping mall, reference library, and cocktail lounge rolled into one – is confusing and distracting us while simultaneously making us superficial. We’re perpetually connected, but we pay a terrible price for connectivity beyond our monthly broadband bills. We gather hundreds of online friends to improve our superficial online status. We’re bombarded by random offers of riches and all-natural male enhancement. In that barrage, we fail to notice the message from a potential employer or old college buddy. Perhaps it’s better we missed the past friend’s message: we may be completely confused when he or she writes “[email protected]#”