I used to be a huge letter writer in terms of number of correspondents, in frequency, and in volume. Lots of paper and stamps. Those were the days!
Then when I finally got email and more and more of my friends and contacts got it too, that basically killed paper-based correspondence for me. And it was so quick and easy and immediate in a way that even a message on an answering machine was not. Either I was too distracted by the convenience of email or my co-writers were, and so the letter gradually died out. I know... sad. I still sometimes write to people who do not do well by email, but email has become my primary means.
Whereas I used to drop a note or call, or write a long letter, or send a card by snail mail, I now drop a note or a lengthy missive by email. I have to admit I'm not so good with the cards-aspect online because it seems so overly complicated. I never did get into e-cards, and most of the time, I am impatient with cutesy sendings unless there is some personal note or information attached. (Although I will admit to throwing a virtual cheesecake at someone via SuperPoke.)
Anyway, there are a lot of people who I keep up with primarily online or by email. I don't call friends much. I don't actually socialize much outside of lunch with a small number of friends or certain regular group activities like church or dancing. I'm actually rather shy and quick to be overwhelmed by too much socialization. So dropping people a quick note via one of my virtual means is a way of keeping in touch and/or not letting people fall too far out of touch without getting stressed by over-exposure.
So for me, the digital communication really works. I've learned to roll with email quite happily.
Flickr was my first big online community, comprised almost entirely of people I knew only through photo-sharing. I didn't even set out to find a community there; because the photos came first, the social aspect grew up around that organically. We start with a common interest and find other people with similar personal styles or photography/life interests. Sometimes a person simply has interesting things to say, and so we start a conversation. I love seeing life around the country and around the globe. I do feel more connected around the world, more invested in the world at large because I've come to know people from other places.
In this last year, I've entered the world of Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and even LinkedIn, nudged by various RL friends. Each of these venues or social media hubs serves a particular focus and group of contacts (work, dance, calling, social, bloggy contacts, etc), and I've had to figure out to what degree I want to share or participate in each one, and what level of investment is just enough but not too much.
Facebook has been particularly interesting to me because it collects myriad contacts from around my area, some of whom are only distant connections in my primary circles, such as people who I know on sight or who are friends of friends who then become my friends too. It's an extension of my real-life world, with overlapping and ever-expanding circles of who I happen to know. In my mid-sized town, it's fun to have a small town experience of frequently running into people I know or people I come to realize I wish I knew! So too on the web.
One young man characterized Facebook friending as just a way to say, "I know you!" and that's often the size of it. However, often, I feel a greater connection with somebody I hear from or about regularly through these venues. So for instance, some of the young people who I see at dances, I know better through Facebook. We sometimes wave at each other or engage in the conversation that we don't always get in a large group. And I enjoy that a lot. It adds to the friendly atmosphere of the larger community. Although, true, I sometimes draw the line at people who for some reason I'm reluctant to share with in real life.
Facebook allows me to keep up with people who have dropped out of or who aren't able to attend group events where I might otherwise see them. So I can still keep up with the woman who has been out with a chronic illness for months, or the new mother who barely surfaces, or the friends and family who live on the other side of the country from me. I like it! It doesn't require a big social investment, but yet it really adds to the social connection. I can see it among the conversations among my various friends. This so-called social media simply adds to the connections that twine in all directions. I even have a facebook app that demos this graphically... the friend wheel that shows the threads between one's friends. It gets impressively dense at times.
The reason I started thinking about this was an unusual perceptual shift I experienced last weekend. I came into the dance late, and as always, I had a sense of all the people I know there among the hundreds present. Even if I don't talk to every single one of them every weekend, I know them and something about them, even if it's only the way they hold in a swing, or the way they give a greeting. Sometimes I just know they are going through a tough spot. Sometimes I just know I am happy to see them.
What I noticed this time as I looked around was the extra layer of things that I know about each person through social media, the extra *sense* I had of people around me. In the back of my head, I know which person has politics drastically different than my own, which people are recovering from colds, which person just got a new car/puppy/child/piece of furniture and which person has been feeling frustrated with work, or feeling happy with a recent accomplishment, or just plain dragged out from their week.
Granted, this is all self-reported, so the particulars may or may not be accurate, only to the level that person has chosen to share or "broadcast." Yet there is that extra layer of information binding us together through a group knowledge. And I had a sense of the people *missing* from the immediate scene too. Where are Stormi and Peter? Did another friend show up tonight? So-n-so is probably still wiped out from their cold/big project... Even if they are not present in the flesh, I feel them as part of the social network.
It is possible that we know a little too much about someone else. I've sometimes learned way too much about a person's social-political-religious views, and it definitely colors the way I think of them, although I try to see past any differences. Or sometimes I hear way too much about a person's reactions, judgements, or outlook on life, and sometimes I'm not much impressed (but that's just me). Another friend calls facebook "electronic gossip," and that's often true! But this could be said of real-life interaction as well. The electronic social media just give us another layer of knowledge and interaction.
It seems that our social media expands our horizons to include people we are not in frequent contact with. I wonder at which point we develop that "future shock" that Alvin Toffler wrote about, what I think of as the incoming tide of information overwhelming our senses and our ability to take it all in and then somehow, respond or integrate with what we already know.
Grammar Girl recently talked about how her view of the world is changing, how she sometimes felt news more vividly because she heard so much more information from her various Twitter contacts around the world/country. She noticed that it wasn't that there were more tragedies or whatever, only that she was hearing more, from more directions. More commonalities float around than we usually see directly in front of us.
Gathering information from all directions can be exhilarating! But if the news sometimes gets a little too much for us to take in and have to respond to, when does the social circles become overwhelming? I already know tons of people in real life, both closely and tangentially, but with the social media pushing the bits of up-to-date information, more knowledge about each other, more interaction, more need for response, at what point does that become too much? I do know that sometimes I step back from the web and regroup either in real life or in my own home, just to re-ground in the present. We do have the power to step back when we need to. And I do believe we should maintain that power as a right of personal boundaries.
But this week, it's been just enough. I could almost *see* it, this ever-expanding web of awareness and connections. ooOOoo! (Pardon me while I have a spiritual moment of awe!) If we are not all One, we are certainly part of the interdependent web of life and human connection. That's what I call radiating the dance. The Facebook world is just another medium for that.
Now excuse me while I go check on the status of my peeps!