Seeking fame and protecting privacy online – a tough balancing act

The social media enthusiast lives in a parallel universe: on the one hand he is isolated from human contact by being totally focussed on his PC, tablet or mobile device, thumbing away to an equally anonymous community of friends, on the other his life is now a public one where every photo, joke, threat, bias, peeve and airport check•in is on display to the whole world.

Social media seems to be a panacea to our continuing spiral inward from community towards individuality and the resulting need to be noticed from among the crowd. For it really is about the “I” isn’t it? At the extreme end of this desire lie examples like the recent flesh•eating high profile murder case in Toronto where the “I” went rabid, or the lone guy who shoots up a public place for fame. Now, to be clear, we are all not a bunch of looney tunes, but after boxing ourselves into jobs in isolated office cubicles or home offices, middle•of•the road soc•meds emerge as street•corner politicians on soapboxes that they wish would go viral one day, establishing their legacy globally and liberating them from their President•for•Life role in their Republic•of•One. Our very isolation creates this craving for human contact and validation.

But the craving comes with a caveat these days, we don’t want the touchy feely bit—we want no body contact any more. Contact is limited to a neutral screen, which could be switched off if we do not like what we see or hear, an interface that could be put on mute while we multi•task on other activities in an attention•deprived state. At work, how often have we succumbed to the temptation of choosing to attend a traditional face•to•face meeting virtually, via conference call and laptop, so that we can multi•task in private and not have to sit in a room with a bunch of fellow humans, trapped into paying attention to a single topic, and be nice?

As for privacy, I guess there is none of that anymore, much as we desire it. Privacy began to slip when people started having cell phone conversations in public places. It was like practicing for a naked parade down the information catwalk. After that, it was just steps away to uploading personal profile information on a myriad of social networks, including the names of the spouse, the kids, the dog and photos of the family vacation. Not forgetting, ingesting all those bots and cookies that tracked our every online movement in perpetuity. Today, when asked a question about someone unknown, replying, “I don’t know her” is not acceptable anymore. One is supposed to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Link•In before replying. And we are likely to find “too much information” on that person. Going into a sales meeting with a prospective new client has a different set of dynamics now: you are expected to launch right in with the qualified ice•breaker: “So, how’s your 5 handicap in golf these days?” or “I read your recent book” (the free Google executive version, most likely). Even companies are beginning to allow their employees to text and tweet because if an employee is going to hang himself (and the company), then the employer may as well provide the rope, and yank it in before much damage is done on the public sidewalk.

Yes, the more we want to be noticed, the more we want to be left alone, untouched in a world that refuses to afford us privacy. Social media appears to be a viable solution offering this happy medium. But is it isolating us even more, creating an even sharper divide between the conflicting forces of fame•craving and privacy•seeking that assail us? I wonder….

The Facebook Family

I remember the old days when we wrote letters to relatives and friends in distant lands, when we phoned the ones nearby to “keep in touch” and when we read the obituary notices to find out who had died.

I have to admit I do not do any of that today. All my friends and most of my far•flung family are now on Facebook. If I don’t see them on the newsfeed, there must be something wrong. Time to “poke” them. Now, you have to be worried if your “friend count” suddenly drops – did someone die? Or did they “un•friend” you because of something you said (or did not say) on your wall or heavens forbid) on his wall? Have I overstayed my welcome by posting my gossip and self•promotion on my friend’s walls? Click – and I am history!

I find out about new births when baby pictures start appearing on my friends’ Facebook pages; or of people moving homes when the backgrounds of those pictures change. “And why are you putting on so much weight, guy – sitting in front of the computer too much?” “What’s with the glasses? Eye strain?” Join the club.

Do I need to send greetings cards anymore? How about a poke instead • “Happy birthday, man, how’s it hanging?” Simple! No need to go to a wedding or birthday party any more – just have my friends upload grainy photographs from the party, captured on a cell phone camera, so that I could check them out and “be there.” No need to come to my parties either, I’ll just post pictures of myself on my Facebook page, blowing out umpteen candles on a $10 supermarket cake, with only me in attendance.

You know, despite all this networking, it feels kind of lonely out in Facebookland. We seem to have networked ourselves into obscurity. To feel guilty when you phone someone and get the real person instead of his voice mail is now becoming a common human reaction. Who would rather be sitting with their spouse or significant other on the same couch and texting each other instead of conversing? I mean, we do it at the office, why not at home? We may get some peace and quiet after all (other than for those tic•tic sounds of keyboards or phone pads). And in ten years from now, our vocal chords would have atrophied and we will have ended up with a circumscribed vocabulary heavily populated with “LOL, Hi, OMG, Hi5” and other acronyms that I am trying hard not to learn.

I don’t know, man – especially in these days of cheap long•distance phone calls and free video conferencing, I think we need the face•to•face more than the face•book. I wonder when the tide will change; when our keyboarding fingers will ache for a rest, our vocal chords thirst for exercise, and our souls hunger for the presence of other souls to remind us that we exist, and are defined, only in relation to community