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.