We live in an increasingly connected world. Or at least we live in a world where it is now easier to connect with other people using a variety of Web-based tools, commonly referred to as online social networking. But has the quality of our connections – virtual and actual – really improved?
We need more than just new tools to help us make more connections. We need tools to help us improve the relationships we already have. After all, no matter how good technology gets, the quality of our social network is still something that we control ourselves.
How big is the phenomenon called social networking? Two out of every 3 people online in the United States now visit social networking sites, and top sites such as MySpace and Facebook have begun to rival top search engines such as Google and Yahoo in terms of Web traffic.
Indeed, social networking is hot. It includes everything from hugely popular video and music sharing to online dating and professional networking sites. Niche sites are also gaining steam. At Hamsterster.com, for example, you can share photos and swap stories with other hamster enthusiasts about your favorite furry friends.
Technology is pushing social networking into entirely new realms that are re-mixing the off-line and online worlds. A variety of new "social mobile software" tools allow us to identify and connect with friends and strangers while on the go. It is now possible for singles to flirt via cellphone with cute prospects in a bar and to use a laptop computer to identify complete strangers with shared interests sitting around you in a coffee shop.
Even more intriguing are virtual worlds such as Second Life or online games such as World of Warcraft, where millions of people interact, not as themselves, but through disguised identities called avatars. Because these online worlds allow for complete anonymity, people tend to do and be things they might not do or be ordinarily. And so a kind of underground or secret social networking has emerged.
In the near future, our online interactions will begin to more closely mimic off-line interactions. Technologists are currently experimenting with mood-sensing tools that enable computers to read our facial expressions and share those expressions with others in whatever online environment we inhabit at the moment. While our virtual identity may be shielded, our emotional state may soon be available for all to see and feel – online.
Despite the ability to connect with millions of strangers worldwide in new and interesting ways, online networking has not significantly improved the connections with people directly around us – our family, friends, and local communities.
In some cases, it has had the opposite effect of trading close connections for distant and virtual ones. Fortunately, there are a number of new social networking services that are focusing on local connections.
The ability to link up with people both near and far in greater numbers and with greater frequency, however, will not improve our ability to communicate well when we establish contact. And having 100 "friends" on MySpace is no cure for a lack of friends in the real world, though it may give us the appearance of being more connected.
Don't get me wrong. I love social networking and have used a variety of these tools to get in touch with people I might not have previously been able to contact, to help friends grow their networks, and to reconnect with long-lost friends.
But none of these tools I have tried or seen so far has helped me personally feel any more confident walking up to a stranger on the street, making eye contact, saying hello, and shaking hands. And they don't make me a better face-to-face conversationalist or more honest and heartfelt with the people I do know.
Of course, there is only so much that technology can and should do. The choice of how we make connections is now more varied and complex, and new communication forms will continue to change the way we interact socially. But what we do with, and how well we advance, those connections is still entirely up to us individually ... and hundreds, if not thousands, of our newest friends.
• Consultant and writer Paul Lamb is the cofounder of beabetterpartner.com.