An Admission

I feel more connected to family and friends because of social technologies.

There, I said it. It felt a little dirty, I'll admit. That statement, in some circles and according to some pundits is completely off-base. Social networks, while revolutionizing both mainstream media and our own personal connection to media, are shouldering the blame for a lack of interpersonal skills exhibited by students in our schools. The video game industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief now that Facebook has become the main target of these barbs.

Granted, I am not basing this on any scientific research, just conversations among teachers over the course of the last few weeks; however, the verdict among the teachers I speak with is clear: social networks are changing the ethics and definition of the word "friend." What we share within our online networks, be them Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, MySpace (does anyone still use this?), or in any other of the numerous networks, is much more than we have ever been able to share in our face-to-face networks. Is that bad? Is hyper-social a negative? Is it that the opportunities for us to share have never been so numerous or easy, and we would have done this generations ago if our parents had simply let us talk on the phone all the time instead of the 10-minute chunk of time we had per evening?

But that's not the real issue that I've been hearing about. It's the questions of what they are sharing and should they be sharing it at all. Call it what you will: digital citizenship, new literacy, digital ethics, digital footprint, the fact of the matter remains that students ages 5-22 are doling out personal information to people they consider "friends" whose very inclusion into said category would not match the traditional standards of that term by their parents' standards. So we need to get a working definition here. What is a friend? How do your students, colleagues, or close personal contacts define the term? Google says it's these:

  • a person you know well and regard with affection and trust; "he was my best friend at the university"
  • ally: an associate who provides cooperation or assistance; "he's a good ally in fight"
  • acquaintance: a person with whom you are acquainted; "I have trouble remembering the names of all my acquaintances"; "we are friends of the family"
  • supporter: a person who backs a politician or a team etc.; "all their supporters came out for the game"; "they are friends of the library"

Taking these, the third one looks to bear the most resemblance to what most students are using as their defining criteria. Are our student tossing around the moniker of friend when they really mean something more akin to acquaintance? The difference, while subtle, is huge in the connotation of the word. Friend is deep, acquaintance is shallow.

Personally, since I have been a participant in the networks I have created, I've noticed deeper connection to those individuals in my life whom I would call friend in any context, and I've been able to acquaint myself with many individuals with like interest in the areas I have rooted interest in. In the chances where I have had to meet individuals from the networks I am a part of and share a conversation, it's added a dimension, or should I say removed a barrier, to that relationship. We've had a chance to converse in some form before actually meeting, or even speaking in most cases.

We lament the ease with which our students share information about themselves and to whom they bestow the title of friend. But to what extent are they doing much the same things that we are, only in a manner that speaks to their rooted interests? Understandably, we need to make sure they are being safe and they understand the rules of the "game" but has this become a question of mere semantics for them? Is a friend a friend, or not?