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Innovation

Has being more sociable dulled our aspirations?

It's probably the same question that generations before had asked when film and television were first invented.Will watching too much violence on TV desensitize our society to real-life crime and numb our ability to empathize?
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

It's probably the same question that generations before had asked when film and television were first invented.

Will watching too much violence on TV desensitize our society to real-life crime and numb our ability to empathize?

Today, the same question can be asked about the impact of social networks, though, not specifically toward violence but our ability to aspire.

The global population has never been more connected today, thanks to the rise of the social networks. But for some of us, our eagerness to grow a contacts list that we can later boast about may result in having relationships that we wouldn't usually care enough to maintain.

Network science expert and Cornell University's professor of applied mathematics, Steven Strogatz, said: "It can be exhilarating, at least at first, to connect with long-lost friends. [However], the distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending time maintaining relationships with people they don't really care about."

Strogatz noted that the era of social networks could also bring on a new source of worry. "On Twitter, the conversation never stops. You start to feel that if you're not involved in it, you're missing out."

If we're not participating in every conversation, we don't feel like we belong. We're not part of the in-group. Sounds like our angsty teenage days, doesn't it?

In a 2008 New York Times report, Judith Donath, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, said social networks have facilitated a social ecosystem in which people have large numbers of diverse but not very close acquaintances. "Does this make us better as a society? Perhaps not. We can imagine this being a selfish and media-driven world in which everyone vies for attention and no one takes responsibility for another."

And amid the crowded social network where some voices are louder and more pronounced than others, those with smaller and more timid voices are inevitably lost in the throng. And herein lies another Glee moment.

Furthermore, with that much more visibility to people's private thoughts, will some feel that their thoughts are less important than others? Will they be discouraged to seek out their aspirations when they see that their social network contacts have already achieved similar goals?

Perhaps, and perhaps not. Feeling lost and insignificant in a crowded environment is not a new societal issue. Imagine living in populous China and India where every voice has to fight to be heard.

The Internet, and along with it social networks, merely reflects society for what it really is and it's up to us to decide if we want to live it as we aspire to live, or lay down and give up simply because it's now easier to know someone else has achieved our dreams.

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