Networking on the train and in the world

In a hundred years, they will have a pretty good fix on this decade as the moment when social networks migrated on line and then back into the world.  What they won’t know is when actually this made a difference to the way an individual individual felt about the world. 

So, for the record, I log the following experience.  It happened to me yesterday on the train from my little town in Connecticut into New York City.  This is the commuter train called Metro North that delivers people into the city every morning and brings them home again at night. 

At Stamford, I think it was, a guy got on and sat right in front of me.  I had a seat looking in the direction the train was going.  He has one of those seats that look in the other direction, the ones that people tend to use only when things are really crowded.  We were sitting maybe 24 inches apart.

This guy was about my age, African American, graying at the temples, pleasant looking.  I moved to move bag from the seat beside him and he said, "Oh that’s alright."  And we smiled at one another in that carefully calculated way that New Englanders have.  Not to much!  No point in letting rip with our emotions.  Snap out of it.  Stay out of it.  That’s our motto.

He was well dressed.  He was carefully dressed.  Fashionable but so precise about it, I wondered for a second if he might be ex-military.  He wore a tan linen jacket, pressed khaki pants, a shirt with pink, black and white stripes in it, a 3 pointed white handkerchief,  one of those Swiss Army Knife watches with its woven, vaguely military strap, and slip-ons with those tassels.  So not military after all, then.  (My guess is that no one who is ex-military would wear a faux military watch.  But what do I know?)

As I say, he seemed a pleasant guy.  And he remained so even after he spotted me taking detailed note of his dress.  Just a brief look of alarm, and then back to that modulated New England geniality. 

Now normally I would think of a guy like this as worlds away.  We had smiled but chances were we would not talk.  He was busy with the Times and I was banging away on my lap top.  I expect both of us would not have been surprised to discover that a conversation would have been more interesting than anything he was going to find in the Times or anything I was going to produce on my ThinkPad.  But no.  A conversation was not going to happen.  We are worlds away even when 24 inches apart. 

And normally, I accept this much thinking about it.  It has an air of inevitability about it.  Disappointing for an anthropologist, for we are by disposition and of necessity the nosiest people on earth.  But pretty much true to the order of things as I have come to understand them.

But yesterday, for the first time, I found myself thinking,

I bet I know someone you know on Facebook. 

My number is now approaching 400.  I don’t think Facebook tells us how many friends our friends have.  But if we make the muliplier 60, its a big number.  For me, it’s around 28,000 people.  This is not x % of the US population.  It’s y% of people like me, educated, professionals, with money enough to live out of town and curiosity enough to sign on to Facebook.  It can’t be many degrees of separation.  If I don’t know a friend of his, I know someone who does.

So big deal.  We are still not talking.  This is Connecticut, and that’s the deal.

But here’s the difference.  Today I looked on this guy in a new way.  He was no longer a "perfect stranger."  I did not take for granted that he lived worlds away.  Thanks to social networking and Facebook, I now took for granted that we are somewhere in the same orbit.  In a digitally mediated world, distance was small, and contact was possible. If you’d asked me a month ago, you would have found me singing the old song : distance is grant, contact is impossible. But very recently, alienation turned to something like a familiarity.  Or better perhaps the presumption that used to run in the direction of alienation now runs in the direction of familiarity. 

Cultures specify even this.  They configure our basic assumptions about who the other is, and what our real and potential relationship might be.  And in this case something has shifted.  Social networking on line has worked back upon the way I think about sociality in the world. 

9 thoughts on “Networking on the train and in the world”

  1. Now that’s a rather unique point.

    Our use of the internet lets us transfer mening to the real world. Well we know how that works. In that way the internet and other stuff like books, film etc. serves as great ressources.

    But in comes the social aspect (the percieved interaction with other “real people” and maybe also a good part of connotations derived from Facebooks use of the word “friend” as a marker). If our OWN participation in social internet groups like Facebook gives us a “new” way to give mening to how we look at other people in the “real world”, if Facebook and the like gives us ressources to look strangers as potential “friends” and friends of friends, now that’s a big deal. A really big deal.

  2. Great post, Grant.

    I was led to think of previous social networks (before the Web) where complete strangers could automatically assume familiarity until proven otherwise. One example (perhaps?) was the Roman Empire where citizens of Rome were citizens no matter where they were born, what language they spoke, what they did, or where they lived. Not everyone under Rome’s rule was a citizen, of course, but a freed slave who became a citizen could envisage even becoming Emperor, as one did.

    A better example would be Rome’s imperial successor, the Catholic Church. A Catholic traveler could and still can normally find friendship and support immediately among Catholics in a foreign country. I have often thought that 20th-century professional associations, such as Rotary and Toastmaster Clubs, were attempts to replicate this global network of immediate friendship among traveling strangers.

    The British newspaper, The Guardian, has been running a series by a jounalist traveling in Latin America staying with people she has met on social networking sites. The latest instalment is here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2008/jun/14/brazil.travelwebsites

  3. hey grant, you are getting there! – still you are very intellectual about the subject.

    i also think that web2.0 changes the way we interact in the real world. and i also think it has a tremendous impact on our creation of self and identity. – i think i said that before in a comment here on your site.

    but it is amazing how our perception of others in the real world changes. the others in a train – the strangers in a train – in the airport, on a street etc… are still mostly ‘the others’ – ‘the unknown others’. but in our perception the unknown that surrounds us changes more and more into a reservoir of potential ‘soul-mates’ (if one wants to use such a big word) – or at least into a reservoir to identify and discover mutuality.

    let me just share some thoughts from a conversation i had with a friend on that topic:

    “….my key assumption would be that people connect intuitively – based on the recognition of the other as a similar self (similar in interests, profile and most important of all in expression). – reading the similarities in ‘expression’ one has to transcendent the written words and one has to be able to look behind it…. in a way we all start reading what people write more like we look at art or like we read literature. we are looking for the personality of the author to rise from behind the surface. … and that is quite new and a little bit sensational in-fact.

    i think we more and more take for granted that there are potential ‘soul mates’ out there. – and that also means that we more and more put a focus on similarities in our individual orientation than on dissimilarities.
    meaning: in the world before web2.0 the otherness of the others was something that we encountered in our limited field of interaction on a daily basis. and we also sort of knew that people geographically and culturally more remote from us were even more different from ourselves. – they were the others and therefore not us. – as luhmann’s systems theory for example implies.
    and so our interaction with the others (not our family, not our schoolfriends, not people being introduced to us) had probably been more careful, more intellect guided. – we KNEW they were different in the first place.

    now there is something slightly changing here: – now we FEEL that the others – or at least those others we chose to communicate with, are potentially very much like us.

    as a consequence our interaction with these others (that we identify as potentially being like us) gets more guided by instinct and emotions. – some others out there are like us. we – kind of – know that. – and with this our concept of self changes. – and – and this would from my perspective be important in the context of your master thesis – our way of interacting with the others changes:

    a) we filter likeness (we do this intuitively and we transcendent the surface in order to read the personality)
    b) the ones that we consider like us come into our set of potential communication partners – all the others disappear in the endless space of the web
    c) with the ones that we consider being some what like us we interact freely and spontaneously with a high investment of up-front trust

    and here now comes another interesting factor:
    by doing so on a regular basis our world significantly changes for us. – our world gets less rational but more ‘mystical’.

    what do i mean by ‘mystical’? – mystical insofar as fundamentally mystical concepts of ‘connectedness’ and ‘love’ (love in theodor adorno’s definition as ‘the ability to recognize the similar in the dissimilar’ tend to become cornerstones in our day -to-day lives and in our daily interactions. – our life – and with this in our whole culture – gets in significant parts a drift from the rational modern world of the 20th century to a slightly more ‘irrational’ and slightly more ‘mystical’ world of the early 21st century. …”

  4. peter. here is another excerpt from a recent email conversation on the same topic. it is in aspects very close to your comment here.

    “…just read on social capital on wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_capital

    guess my thoughts on social capital are closely linked to “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” and to the ideal of the civil society:

    “….However, a truer definition of civil society is different though not wholly distinct from the third sector.[original research?] Lyons goes some way to addressing this by introducing a somewhat Marxist[dubious – discuss] interpretation of civil society, where civil society is “the space for free association, where people could meet and form groups to pursue their enthusiasm, express their values and assist others”. This is a “vibrant space, full of argument and disputation about matters of greatest import to its citizens”, resembling the polis of Athens more than the organisations of the third sector. This also implies “elements of the enlightenment use of the term civil society” including decency, respect, good manners and kindness to fellow beings.”

    it is interesting that in a globalized economy (=society) with all its fierce one-to-one competition and at the height of social individualization (bowling alone) web2.0 – in quite a ‘poetic’ way – brings social capital back into work.

    this social capital is ‘fluid’ – (quote: “… this is a vibrant space…”) and it also brings the social glues that are so necessary to civil life back into place – (quote: “…decency, respect, good manners and kindness to fellow beings..”) – and this in a way via the PERMANENT PRESENCE OF THE UNKNOWN OTHER (the wide spaces of the web) THAT HOLDS AS A RESERVOIR FOR ENCOUNTERING THE SIMILAR IN THE DISSIMILAR. … lessons in love and decency.. so to say”

  5. Interesting points in this post.

    Though I would have had no hesitation in greeting and engaging your travel companion.

    Your description makes him look interesting. I would want to find out if he is interesting. I’d be happy at taking a chance on discovering his story and having him share it.

    Of course I would have been respectful and polite. If he didn’t want to visit that would have been honored by me.

    Maybe this is because I was raised in Nebraska and bring my Midwestern assumptions with me? I tend to assume that contact is always possible and distance doesn’t matter.

    Still it is intriguing to think that online social networking is working backward on our willingness to meet and engage others.

    Thanks for stirring the pot with this post.

    Keep creating,
    Mike

  6. Interesting post. Clearly, web 2.0 has changed the way we relate to one another as well as the way we identify ourselves. I wonder, though, about what’s being lost. I grew up on the internet with the internet generation, but I’m very skeptical of the quality of the relationships formed online. You may have 400 “friends” on facebook, but what does that really mean? What are those relationships like? And is there something lacking in them, or are they just different? Is there any data out there on whether online relationships are replacing “real world” relationships or if they’re acting as extensions to those?
    Intuitively, I feel as if the relationship that might have been built with that man on the train would have been infinitely more valuable than the ones online that don’t involve any face-to-face interaction.
    I guess I’m just curious if anyone else feels as though this mediation and abstraction of relationships doesn’t really relieve alienation, but merely makes it a little more tolerable?
    I’m not trying to criticize – I just want to know what people think – sorry if I come off sounding a little negative.

  7. Interesting post. Clearly, web 2.0 has changed the way we relate to one another as well as the way we identify ourselves. I wonder, though, about what’s being lost. I grew up on the internet with the internet generation, but I’m very skeptical of the quality of the relationships formed online. You may have 400 “friends” on facebook, but what does that really mean? What are those relationships like? And is there something lacking in them, or are they just different? Is there any data out there on whether online relationships are replacing “real world” relationships or if they’re acting as extensions to those?
    Intuitively, I feel as if the relationship that might have been built with that man on the train would have been infinitely more valuable than the ones online that don’t involve any face-to-face interaction.
    I guess I’m just curious if anyone else feels as though this mediation and abstraction of relationships doesn’t really relieve alienation, but merely makes it a little more tolerable?
    I’m not trying to criticize – I just want to know what people think – sorry if I come off sounding a little negative.

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  9. We’ve always known people in our industry and despite this, made little or no effort to use these tenuous links to spark a conversation or (in a lot of creative circles) even a smile.

    We’re too concerned with falling down and someone having an upperhand. Try it sometime – have a conversation and do use the word I or me and keep asking questions until the other person get’s the point and asks one back – it’s called a conversation and despite the awkwards, can be fun.

    Serious not cynical
    h

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