Monday, May 3, 2010

new personal information gathering centers

I'd never heard of facebook until I arrived in Korea.

There's a really interesting thing that happens with facebook when used by people who are socially connected while living abroad: a lot of people connect socially more on facebook than in real life. In fact I've been asked before why I didn't come out some night, and after I explain that I was never invited I'm asked, "Didn't you see my facebook status?" Then I learned that it was completely normal for a night out to be planned and executed without even a single text message, email, or phone call. And it's actually pretty common. Someone I met here once told me that they hated emails because they take "way too much commitment."

What interests me is how does this affect the essential nature of real life conversation? I don't really know that answer, but I have made some observations about how real life conversation is unavoidably altered. Sometimes I meet people in neighboring cities or provinces in the country who are facebook friends with people from where I live. When those people come to visit, or I just happen to meet them in non-virtual life, I find that they know incidental things about me that I have never told them. I've never told them because I've never known them. So when my first conversation with them occurs it is unquestionably different from a conversation I would normally have with someone who I have just met for the first time.

I'm really curious about how this is going to affect the nature of conversation of future generations. If most of your information about someone has already been gathered from an online source (social networking sites, blogs, websites, etc.), than what are people really going to talk about? I think our generation is still not fully comfortable with this new form of personal information gathering (i.e. it feels a bit too much like our now probably antiquated definition of stalking), but as future generations grow up with this technology, they will most likely lose or never have the discomfort that exists now.

Here's two examples of mechanisms I've observed people utilize to defend themselves and others from the discomfort that can follow someone's realization that they've been the victim of online personal information reconnaissance missions. Both of these mechanisms demonstrate that people still feel like it's much more natural for people to find out personal information about others in person:

1. the confirmation: when you meet someone for the first time and they know certain information about you, they'll usually bring it up in conversation as a sort of confirmation: "And you just got back from vacation in Thailand, right? Those were some amazing pictures you posted!" Of course this fact doesn't need to be confirmed, because both parties already know it's true: the person that went to Thailand knows they just returned from there and posted the pictures, and the person confirming has already seen them. But, it seems like when it's brought up into a real, non-virtual conversation, it makes it less strange that a person you've never met before knows sometimtes intimate details about you. Once they've confirmed the information in a real conversation, the information is freed into real life, in a way. And then if the person mentions it later, out of the blue, you won't be that weirded out, because by confirming a piece of information, it was almost like you told them in the first place. Something that scares me is if this trend persists, what proportion of conversations will just be a series of confirmations of things that are already known by both people involved?

2. the confession: Another mechanism I've heard used a lot is someone just coming out and confessing that they've been stalking people online. It's usually said as a joke (although I can't think of any reason why it would be taken as funny), and other people usually laugh after it's said, although I assume only because they don't really know that the fuck else to do. Example of the two machanisms used conseculatively: "And you just got back from vacation in Thailand, right? Those were some amazing pictures you posted! Sorry, I was bored at work so I was online facebook stalking all day." For some reason, this is not a creepy thing to say to someone in our culture, I assume only because facebook exists and so many people are "facebook stalking" themselves. But people obviously still feel guilty enough for it that they need to confess, even if in a half-joking manner, that they've done something that can be construed as wrong or unnatural, and that they know personal information about people, even though they've not had any real, non-virtual contact with them.

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