Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Virtual Generation and Their Corresponding Selves

My wife, Jessica, recently posted this question to her Facebook friends in her "status update" regarding the effect of electronic social networking on relationships.

Do these constant updates meaningfully communicate to the people we love, or are they narcissistic compulsions brought on by an increasingly detached and disconnected society in which real life is being submerged under a weighty flow of chat, IM, email, twitter, and other forms of virtual reality?

Her colleague at the school, Jesse Clements, gave what I thought was a wise response.

As long as one primarily recognizes the playful superficiality of this type of discourse and does not mistake it for "meaningful" communication (as so many teens do), then it is harmless and even useful. But as I begin to notice kids who think simulating the symptoms of Tourette's at each other is adequate conversation, I have to wonder whether Facebook has completely erased any sense of entire personality that, say, a letter requires one to put forth. Given my virtual nostalgia for the epistolary age, I am enticed by this new kind of exchange but find it an inadequate, fragmented reincarnation. Letters were also vehicles for the creation of persona but at least one needed to be responsible for that creation and follow up on it. The new format provides too many opportunities for teens especially to hide behind broken or borrowed signposts as they do their clothes. When they see their friends at school, no one demands--it isn't even expected--that there be a correlation of selves.

Jessica Innes (B.A., Grove City College) teaches humanities at Grace Christian Academy, a classical Christian school in Merrick, NY, on Long Island. Jesse Clements (B.A., New York University) teaches humanities and Latin. Both have graciously given me permission to post the exchange.

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