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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 44
 
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It's Never Time For an Adult Swim in Social Networking
by Mike Rodman

 

I've seen a lot of dumb crap in my life. Heck, I've done a lot of dumb crap in my life. As proof of both, I rarely have to go further than saying I spent most of my occupational years in newspapers, where you not only get the daily chance to report stupidity, but to also commit it.

That said, my recent journey into the world of "social-networking" websites Facebook and MySpace revealed both hilarious mindlessness and reasons for serious worry about the future of mankind. The fact many of these people vote and have kids terrifies me.

I'm not talking about the big-picture worry from obvious dangers like population explosion, climate change and a depletion of resources that, taken to their natural conclusion, will almost have to one day end the human race. I've acclimated myself to: a) acknowledging it; b) recycling all beer cans; and c) not having kids of my own (simultaneously doing wonders for the psyches of potential nursery school teachers who would have to somehow deal with small versions of me).

But before I launch into a tirade of critical observation and accusatorial worry, please allow me to provide proof of a balanced perspective, because I come with so many warts of my own, stockholders in Compound-W could fund bailouts of the auto industry. I'm not talking funny snapshots here, like defoliating with cat litter. I'll leave that to Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. No, I'm talking huge, life-changing idiocies. A short sampling:

  • Dreamed of being a sportswriter before I passed my ninth birthday. I accomplished it at age 19, in the ultra-competitive New York metropolitan area in 1975—just a year after two reporters at The Washington Post motivated both a presidential resignation and a mass transformation of frat-house drunks into journalism students. Two years later—with perhaps more demonstrated potential than any three college grads naïve enough to think you could actually learn newspaper work in a classroom—I chucked it all, to sell stereo in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shrewd.

  • Making the most of my absurd career change, six years later I was somehow able to vault from retail, to being an Eastern Regional Sales Manager for a few major electronics manufacturers, making nearly three times my age in salary, bonuses and perks before I was 30. Invest? Yeah, right (see next item).

  • After a fervent and outspoken anti-marijuana perspective in my high-school years, I somehow thought it OK to use cocaine in my 20s. Fourteen years later, I needed six months in what may have been the toughest rehab in the country. How tough? Inmates from the state prison in Rahway, N.J.—granted treatment in lieu of time—often asked to be returned to prison two weeks later. No bull. And if you number yourself among those who think use of illicit drugs is a moral choice that renders my writings not worthwhile forever, well, I'm sure there's a cable review in this issue that'll satisfy your reading needs.

For those still with me, I then returned to newspapers after moving to Arkansas, where nobody would know me if my comeback failed. (Hey, I never claimed therapy was 100 percent effective in eliminating a need to succeed.) This time I worked the news-side—mostly in government and politics, but police stuff too—making less than I had 15 years before. But even a blind walnut occasionally finds a pair of pliers (or however the hell that goes). And I can say this much: About a dozen years later I wrote a book outlining the above and more. I couldn't use real names because some of my friends didn't need their employers knowing we shared an eight-ball of blow in '83. But it's hard not to recognize it's first-person stuff and maybe—just maybe—somebody can learn from a life lived on the edge far longer than what is healthy.

So there you have it: My worst behavior for all the public to see—which is a little different than most of the folks on Facebook and MySpace, who type their idiocy every day without even knowing it. Or at least, I assume they don't know it because how else would you explain conversational threads like this:

CuteCookie: Geez, it's hot.

Buttonhead24: Yeah, so am I.

Shit-for-Brains-No.425,874: I had cereal for breakfast. What did you folks have?

Skillet-Nuts: Eggs ... and hash-browns ... I think.

LiverSpot: I skipped it. I was too busy with a tape of last night's episode of "Survivor: Only Those Detained In a Psyche Ward Can Actually Watch."

I-Lick-Dandruff: Didn't the last winner lose his townhouse to the IRS?

RestrainingOrder: No, I think he lost his wife/second-cousin's tassle during graduation at LSU.

FootCulture: You're both wrong. He lost his dog's leash at the DMV.

CuteCookie: Geez, it's hot.

...And on it goes. And goes, and goes and goes—until you call the only hunting advocate you know and plead, "Please shoot me. I'm talking RIGHT NOW—PLEASE SHOOT ME."

You know the handful of pedestrians who linger at an accident scene until the last of emergency personnel leave? I would've trusted them with the Manhattan Project before letting one of these Facebookians deliver lunch to the compound. And I state this realizing I've likely teed-off every LiverSpot or FootCulture in the world, who might read this and ask en masse, "OK, Mr. Science: If it's so stupid, why did you join?"

Damn good question. The short answer: Because I still make mistakes. Longer answer: I was under the absurd notion it could be used for serious purposes. You see, I've been wanting to reconnect with an estranged niece because there are important things I'd like to tell her, if she cares to hear them. (I discussed this very matter in my last PFO piece, which can be found here: "Leader of the Band"). And when you're 53-years-old, cheerily out-of-shape and disdainful of preventive health care, I may be one prime-rib dinner from this becoming an imperative matter (some habits die hard; I still prefer to only take medications that fool me into thinking I feel great).

Another challenge to my criticism might be: How would a newsie like me react to a proof-of-viability claim based on social networking as a lifeline to the recent upheaval in Iran? Well, a) use of such information without verification is highly suspect journalism—with or without warnings from CNN and the like that they might be broadcasting lies; and b) I'd have no problem with such conduit sites being erected when necessary and torn down after no longer needed.

Before my criticism had a chance to meld, however, I thought maybe these social networking tools might prove helpful in efforts to reach my niece in a stealthy manner (or "sneakily," if you're an impeached governor of Illinois... what a jackass, that Blogdonovich... I think he's about to launch a competing website called, "PenitentiaryFace," for social networking among those convicted of collecting kickbacks on government jobs that don't even exist). Regardless, I filled out all the Facebook info before realizing the most embarrassing part of the whole deal: I had friends who were members—several of them. Their avatars were popping up faster than a bag of Orville Redenbacher's (although I'm not sure all of them were indeed friends; one of them I might have swindled on a cheap stereo deal in ‘78).

One of those friends gets a pass: He's a better writer than I'll ever be, with a real publishing house behind his books and the contractual requirement to promote himself (which is also required by his mortgage-holder). Another of those friends gets a pass too because, well, I started loving her when I was 15 and I'll never stop. As for other people with whom I attended high school, isn't once a decade at the Elks Lodge enough? Hell, only a small sampling liked the shy, button-downed version of me when we passed in high school hallways way-back then; how would they deal with a daily-dose of the new Rodman, now acerbic enough to kill a hamster with one stare and a bottle of cheap gin?

There was even more trouble ahead, though. After my observations of Facebook, I thought maybe MySpace would be better for my needs. Umm, wrong again, BeaverBreath (Carnak-reminiscent, but still one helluva screen name; maybe I can auction it to a new Facebook member by linking it to e-Bay, which of course, is yet another salute to our, ahem, progress). Although my profile at Facebook provided plenty of proof that I obviously don't want new friends—given it's taken me decades to break-in the ones I have and the potential candidates are better off for my humane discouragement—I hadn't seen anything yet.

When I hit MySpace, it didn't take long for a reasonable conclusion: MySpace is for people too dim-witted to join Facebook. I've heard turtles have more meaningful conversations. My kind and wonderful wife tried to temper my rampage by suggesting it was like a cheap, party-line phone call. Wrong—at least for my circle of friends. If I called any friend of mine to have a discussion typical of these social-networking websites, they would either: a) tell me to lose their number and hang up; or b) organize a lobotomy intervention; and/or c) simply shoot me... as I had requested after reading Facebook (my friends are very accommodating).

Fortunately, I didn't need to sample much of MySpace because the profile was enough to drive me away for life (not that they'll miss me). First, there was a smiley-faced emoticon next to my name; and then I couldn't find any-way-in-hell to remove the astrological sign that appeared via computer automation after I was silly enough to provide my birth-date. This required a public flogging in the comment box, which went something like this:

1) If I find the person who put a smiley-face next to my name, I will hang him (or her) from a flagpole on the downtown square until so much blood rushes into their hands, they combust, rendering said individual unable to use a keyboard for the rest of their life. I would rather put a bullet in my head than an emoticon in the general vicinity of my writing because I actually attended English class in ninth grade, instead of cutting class to chain-smoke Marlboros outside the library, all-the-while discussing how to bury potential stillbirths without parental discovery. Capisce?

2) Although computer skills aren't my strong-point, somebody in charge better remove that astrological sign from my profile because I will do as stated above—but will instead do it from the nearest star (I know people in government... I can get it done). How can a profile that allows me to delineate my atheism simultaneously make me powerless to remove a reference that exists only to make religion—and stock-brokers—look good? Who designed this feature, a Jonestown-survivor?

I let that marinate the rest of the day before closing my account. I'm going to wait a few days before doing the same with my Facebook membership, given I had used their system to write a heart-felt outreach to someone who fits my niece's general description. I'm not sure it's actually her because when I left my family behind 19 years ago—I had my reasons and for $29.95 in hard-cover, you can find out what they were—I think she was still in elementary school.

At this point, though, the day was still young. Although I had the chance to write a 100-1 shot Facebook email to a Danielle Rodman somewhere—and take my sarcasm for a stroll, to boot—I had plenty of time to ponder my experience. And as I foreshadowed at the top: It scared the living hell out of me.

Despite my attempt to shed a little light on your not-humble-enough correspondent, I suspect my six loyal readers here at PFO haven't had the chance to completely gauge my gait. But when you've made as many major mistakes as me—and shock is further devalued by an occupation reporting on some of the worst human nature has to offer—you develop a skin that allows otherwise-scary behavior to roll off your back (after a quick stop at your sense-of-humor, if appropriate). The more I thought about how insidious to our populace these sites have become, however, the more outrage I felt... and that was without even a pass-through at the latest of posh Internet discos: Twitter.

A 140-character limit? Oh yeah, that'll inspire deep thought—Socrates, watch out. That's even worse than a tabloid at which I worked... and I quite nearly went postal on the entire editorial board there because I had the audacity to question a policy that dictated six column inches is enough even if JFK were to reappear and once again get killed at Dealey Plaza. I can crap 140 characters 50 times-over with The Daily Racing Form in one hand and the latest Absolute Sound review of speakers more expensive than the gross national product of all remaining South American countries without drug cartels balanced on my lap. If you throw-in a breakfast of Cracklin' Oat Bran, I could write the entire frickin' site by myself before the morning coffee spoils.

Having pinned the Vitriol Meter to the extreme, however, it was time to consult with people I trust. Fortunately or unfortunately, they agreed with me and PFO doesn't mind publishing opinions from all corners. So here we are: Is this what the Internet has wrought? Are eight-hour shifts of mindless musings replacing bad pornography (a.k.a. reality shows) as the center of a culture intent on decaying what's left of our ability to think, reason and contribute positively to both ourselves and our communities?

Further, what happens when generations who are indoctrinated to this pastime at an early age grow up and run the world? Will we one day elect "Skillet-Nuts III" to be our president? And if so, will this country be fortunate enough to compete with other countries run by the same undeveloped minds, or is this the beginning of the end of the Great American Empire?

I'm not smart enough to know. And perhaps fortunately for me (in a Kevorkian kinda way), I can now field a rugby team with my current roster of doctors, which signals I beat myself up enough to not worry about the long-term sinking of my own world because the years are numbered. My wife will never join an Internet group and my own involvement—if any—will be confined to Internet forums that can educate folks in a given specialty. After all, if I wasn't adopted by some professional chefs on a cooking site a few years back, I never would have evolved from someone who thought he could cook, to someone who actually can. I hope sites like that will remain viable, as I do for any website that promotes thoughtful introspection and activities that stimulate the senses.

If switching Internet hang-outs isn't attractive, there are even better ideas: volunteer for duties with the local chapter of the cancer society (or whatever cause strikes a chord in your heart); take a fatherless kid to a ball-game—any ball-game; visit your friends, as in real face-to-face conversation, even if it means a plane trip. Or maybe you might enjoy what most readers of PFO do: step away from the computer, turn off the TV and listen to music. It will stimulate and not stagnate... what more could you ask of a hobby?

Recommendations aside, though, I'm still just an inky wretch, unwilling or unable to shed the herky-jerky cynicism that comes from working in an industry that put the "dead" in "deadline." I therefore can only report what I see—and if allowed—offer an opinion of one. Certainly, somebody with my life history can allow folks a temporary setback in their cognitive growth. But reporting can also include the prognostications of those qualified in the assessment arts (sometimes called "bookies," in the sports pages). And although I don't know any personally, my closest Jersey friend has availed himself of their services for long enough to qualify as a once-removed soothsayer. Further, although he won't ever invent a car that doesn't need an energy source, he has as much wit and horse-sense as anyone I've ever met.

His evaluation? He's seen the plague and he's betting the other way. I'm sorry to pass that along, but I must. You know why? Because he usually wins.

Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He can be reached at: rods84@earthlink.net

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