[Viewpoint] Where’s the antisocial network?

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[Viewpoint] Where’s the antisocial network?

I watched “The Social Network,” the film about Facebook, on a flight recently - at about the same time that analysts starting bandying around pre-IPO valuations of about $50 billion for the company founded by Mark Zuckerberg.

The movie portrays Zuckerberg as a socially inept but brilliant nerd. I will take this as fact as I can think of no possible reason why Hollywood would tinker with the facts in making a motion picture. It’s about to win a slew of Oscars so it must be true.

That being the case, I hate the young fellow in much the same way I take an instant dislike to lottery winners who, invariably, are too old or too thick to properly enjoy their windfalls. It’s just not fair that they, rather than I, should have access to untold wealth.

That someone apparently with such a limited capacity for developing personal relationships should come up with a brilliant idea for establishing friendships seems about as plausible as the notion of Charlie Sheen setting up a temperance group.

Indeed, fellow Harvard students the Winklevoss twins claimed Zuckerberg pinched their idea - and pocketed a $65 million settlement from the world’s youngest billionaire. (Having read the IPO estimates, they’re now understandably back for more.)

Except, of course, that the friendship network enabled by Facebook is essentially an impersonal one - calling mainly for online social skills rather than genuine engagement or witty party banter.

Until he became extraordinarily wealthy - I’d assume he’s now quite a hit with the girls - Zuckerberg’s strategy for making friends appeared to be to not actually meet them.

Now there’s nothing wrong in developing friendships that involve communicating regularly with people you’re never likely to physically encounter. They used to be called pen pals, and, indeed, I wonder if any children these days are encouraged to have them in the old-fashioned way? The excitement of a pen-pal relationship was in the anticipation of a letter on its way and the reasonable expectation that it would be a thoughtful missive worth the wait.

The problem with the online equivalent is that the parties value speed over substance.

People who communicate via e-mail or Facebook feel slighted if they don’t get an instant response regardless of how shallow or banal it might be. They’re the same sorts who enjoy the instant gratification of sending and receiving online Christmas cards.

Personally, I will never open an e-mailed card unless it arrives on an iPad I can put on the mantelpiece. People today miss the whole point of this yuletide tradition - i.e. to display the cards you have received, then go to other folk’s homes and count theirs before smugly concluding “our family’s more popular than yours.”

Of course, it would be unfair to make a generalization that those who rely on Facebook, Friendster, etc. for their social intercourse are incapable of making warm, genuine friendships online or offline.

Many even meet their life partners over the Internet (though quite a few also get instant gratification straight off the Internet - but let’s not go there).

Even so, there seem to be an awful lot of people out there who, when they say they’re meeting friends on a Saturday night, actually mean that they’re foregoing real air-kissed “mwahs,” handshakes and backslaps for a multilateral video link or maybe just a smiley face with a “lol.”

That’s about as sad as the 25 percent of Twitter account holders who don’t have a single follower - the online equivalent of asking the world “do you wanna be in my gang?” and the entire planet responding “actually, no.” I have a Twitter account with 23 followers so am careful to protect my fragile ego by ensuring that I follow only 22 people at any given time.

What I do find delightful about Web-based social networks are their antisocial options - notably the push-button ability to accept or decline a friend. I get immense pleasure from delivering these virtual slaps-in-the-face.

Now just imagine how much money one could make by creating a guilt-free equivalent to extricate oneself from unwelcome real-life encounters. Think of the joy - when cornered at a cocktail party - of being able, without a hint of awkwardness, to advise someone, “I’m sorry but you’re really very boring. DECLINE.”

Or of applying privacy settings so the bloke next to you on a direct long-haul flight couldn’t inquire “so where are you headed?” Or not being at all obliged to return a greeting from someone just because you happen to have a mutual acquaintance. I’m sorry, but I’m opting out of this conversation. I’m offline. Invisible. Away (though not really).

Zuckerberg, Winklevosses - in fact any Harvard brains out there - you’re welcome to take this idea and run with it. We don’t need to be friends, I just want a cut of the cash. And maybe a part in the film.

*The writer is a founding partner of WATATAWA, a stakeholder engagement consultancy in Singapore.

By Bryan Matthews
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