Donnerstag, 26. Februar 2009
This week I’ve met 49 friends from around the world, and hardly left my desk.
Facebook is in the news this week in Germany and the UK not least because it – and other social networks – may be contributing to the ‘infantilising’ the human mind. So claims Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution. According to Lady Greenfield, every time we click onto these sites we may be shortening our attention span, losing our ability to empathise and undermining our sense of identity.
I first encountered the Facebook phenomena last year. During breaks between classes at the Goethe Institut, language students – most of whom were in their twenties -- fired up their laptops or scuttled down to the Mediothek. Some of them were booking flights home or checking emails but the majority of them were logging onto Facebook. Quickly and easily they communicated with a dozen, fifty, even 500 friends, sharing news, making plans.
When I was a boy I used to ramble away from home after school, straying along unfamiliar streets, roaming off into parks and meadows to climb trees, build camps with friends and talk to strangers. The world felt vast, diverse and safe. I was as free as a leaf in the wind, as long as I came back in time for supper. Day after day I discovered the wonder in my neighbourhood, in the streets and fields beyond, spiralling ever further away from the familiar.
But as I grew older the world seemed to change. Towns grew into cities. Streets were widened and drivers drove faster along them. People became suspicious of unfamiliar neighbourhoods and lonely parks. We no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. We eyed our fellow man warily rather than looked out for him. More and more often parents stopped children from wandering away from home.
This change created a vacuum in young people’s lives, a vacuum which is now being filled in part by social networking web sites. As Lady Greenfield acknowledges, the appeal of Facebook may lie in the fact that ‘a child confined to the home every evening may find at the keyboard the kind of freedom of interaction and communication that earlier generations took for granted in the three-dimensional world of the street.’ In other words, Facebook enables him or her to feel connected in a changing world.
The statistics boggle the mind. Every month Facebook attracts 132 million unique visitors. The German language site StudiVZ, probably Europe’s biggest social network, has almost 13 million users, close to 16% of the country’s population. Xing, another popular social network based in Hamburg, claims 6.5 million users. Through the networks visitors connect with school friends, discuss homework, plan parties, share passions for Schiller or Key lime pie with like-minded souls around the globe.
But Lady Greenfield worries that living with one hand on the Facebook ikon will ‘result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world.’ I don’t doubt that my web browsing has shortened my attention span. But most young people haven’t lost their critical faculties, or embraced the computer as a superior means of social intercourse. As a sixteen year old German friend told me, ‘I use SchülerVZ but I wouldn’t say that it is the best way to communicate with friends. I’ve thought often about deleting my page, because one spends so much time just visiting pages of other pupils, which is not really interesting. Also I don’t like the way some kids represent themselves on line. People write what they want others to think about them. For example, I know a boy who spends most of his time alone playing computer games, yet he doesn’t want others to think that he’s boring. So on the social network sites he writes about his hobbies and how he loves going to parties, even though it’s not true. In my opinion many people on line are fantasists and SchülerVZ is a hollow lie! The only reason I’m still a member is that I have a few friends who I rarely see and I know I’d lose contact with them if I left SchülerVZ.’
So why have I joined Facebook? Not to lie, to rekindle old relationships or because I feel a need to share the titles of my favourite novels. I’ve joined because my latest book is published in the States this week. The book tells the story of the Asia Overland hippie trail, the great journey of the Sixties and Seventies when hundreds of thousands of young Americans, Canadians, Brits, Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis travelled from Istanbul to India. Today – with the publication of the book – I created a group to try to bring together veteran, American travellers. Within an hour of launching it, the first member joined. And guess what? He wasn’t from Seattle or Boise, Idaho, but rather from Berlin. He lives just down the road from me. We’re meeting next week at the Indian restaurant on the corner. Now that’s a small world…
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