Monday, September 14, 2009

Social Networking

Names are kind of funny. We like to name things, because it gives us the illusion of understanding them and the hope we will ultimately control them. When we name a disease, for example, we begin to think that one cure – if we're lucky or smart enough to find it – will remedy all instances of the malady. Unfortunately we often mistake symptoms for diseases and forget that a symptom may have many causes. Cancer comes to mind. Or the common cold. We forget, too, that the disease might be entirely imaginary – caused by mass hallucination or hysteria.

"Social networking" has a lot in common with diseases in those respects. It isn't a single thing, nor is there a single way to deal with its many instances. Giving it a serious-sounding and techno-babbly kind of name may make us feel as though it's one thing and that we understand it, but those impressions are false. It might even be imaginary, brought on by exposure to the radiation of computer monitors and Blackberry LCD screens.

We like to categorize things, too: also so we can understand and control them. Ever since Linnaeus we've tried to categorize the flora and fauna of the Earth, for instance. But we've embarrassed ourselves many times because the categories we've invented have sometimes turned out to be meaningless and those in which we've chosen to place a thing have not always been the most appropriate.

"Social networking" is a whole jungle of creatures and they don't all belong in the same part of the zoo. Facebook and Flickr, YouTube and Twitter may be cousins, branches on the Internet family tree, but should they be in the same cage and fed the same diet? Maybe they're all in the kingdom "Digital," the phylum "Internet," and the class "Social," but are they all in the order "Advertising Medium?"

Marketers are some of the most dedicated namers of things. One of them came up with a condition known as "halitosis" in order to sell an elixir for bad breath. Many folks who sell advertising and technology consulting services have latched onto "social networking" as a way to foment a profitable combination of greed and fear, dread and avarice in the marketplace for their wares. It helps that nobody really knows what "social networking" is (it can mean anything you want it to mean), but everybody wants to turn it to his own advantage or save himself from its potential ravages.

We sure do like to try to turn everything we encounter to our advantage, and that can bring good results or otherwise. Thankfully some guy long ago saw a spiny lobster crawling around and said "I don't care what it looks like, I'm gonna eat the thing." But it's not a good idea to leave infants unattended around cans of paint thinner.

Many thirsty folks these days are thinking seriously about swallowing the social networking Kool-Aid. I guess we'll find out how that turns out.