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Originally published May 24 2009

Social Networking, Virtual Friends and the Erosion of the Social Fabric of Modern Society

by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor

(NaturalNews) Social networking is an illusion. The term is almost self-contradictory, like "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence." Networking on the 'net is, by any real measure, anti-social.

I know a young guy who has over twenty thousand friends on Facebook and MySpace. That sounds impressive at first: Twenty thousand friends? Wow. Except there's a problem: None of them are real.

Not in any way that matters, anyway. They aren't real flesh-and-blood people who he's ever chatted with face to face. He doesn't know their real names (only their screen names) and wouldn't even recognize them if he passed them on the street (a real street, not a virtual world street). In effect, this guy who has twenty thousand friends is completely alone in the real world.

He has no real friends, he lives in his parents' basement (how classic is that?) and he rarely leaves his house. He's vitamin D deficient from the lack of sunlight, socially deficient from the lack of face-to-face interactions, and even though he has twenty thousand friends online, he still hasn't managed to find a girlfriend in the real world (inflatable dolls don't count).

Although this guy is alone in the real world, he's not alone in his pattern of virtual social interaction. An alarming number of teens and twenty-somethings follow much the same pattern, and the sheer numbers of people engaged in the seductive pull of online social networking are beginning to define the social interactions of an entire generation.

The more active people are in online social networking, the more isolated they become in the real world.

Online relationships do not replace real social interaction

Social networking interactions are no replacement for real-world bonding between friends. Real-world friends build commonality and trust based on shared personal experiences. Bike rides, hiking trips, shopping experiences, skipping school, dance parties... These mutual histories form true friendships based on common experiences that reinforce shared worldviews, an important foundation for any lasting friendship.

Such experiences are utterly lacking in the online world. Hurling photos, movie links and clever chat quips into the vast void of the public 'net is no replacement for private, shared events witnessed and remembered with your friend at your side.

This is why the internet, while it appears to be connecting us, is actually driving us apart. We are friends online but strangers in the street. We live in boxed houses, year after year, never even knowing the names of those souls who live right next door. We stand in line at the grocery store like automatons, afraid to make eye contact with anyone other than the cashier, for which eye contact is "safe" -- but only at the appropriate moment, after the previous customer has cleared the space and handed it off to you.

The people who physically live closest to us are, in reality, our greatest strangers. We don't know their interests, their favorite bands or recipes, or their intimate secrets. Those details are more readily shared online, usually in an attempt to replicate the feelings of intimacy and bonding where no such bonding is realistically possible. A stranger on the 'net who knows your deepest desires is not necessarily your friend, even if they follow you on Twitter. They might just be some future stalker.

It this age of great digital connectedness, we increasingly find ourselves clinging to illusions of intimacy, adrift in a sea of anonymity, surrounded by the great faceless, nameless masses from which no commonality can be extracted.

In many cities, the mere act of attempting to connect to a member of these great masses -- "Hi, what's your name?" -- is perceived as an act of aggression or mental instability.

Many of the most prolific internet users are ironically more alone today than ever before in the history of human life on our planet -- alone in an age of great connectedness, where words can leap across the planet at the speed of light, where we can broadcast video from our desktop, or podcast audio from our cars, or communicate with millions through the tapping of our fingers on plastic keyboards.

We have every astounding achievement of communication that has ever been invented at our disposal... and yet, wading through this deluge of digital communications, most of us have yet to find any real meaning in life. The medium of the internet, it appears, cannot yet encode and transmit the essence of the human spirit; nor love, compassion, empathy or consciousness.

Google has spidered over eight billion web pages, and indexed each one, and displayed them as results in hundreds of billions of user searches, and yet not once has Google transmitted love or friendship or understanding. It is outside the specification of digital information.

The shock of seeing real people

Much of this duality between the virtual world and the real world became suddenly clear to me recently when I hosted twenty-five NaturalNews readers at a conference event in Vilcabamba. It was astonishing at first, to see these readers -- who had until that point been only virtual "friends" -- set foot on my land, in flesh and blood, and share the same personal space. (Not "MySpace" but "my space.")

We shared a "group juicing" out of my garden; we breathed the same air; we lavished in the same sunshine and listened to the same singing of the birds that populate the bamboo forests surrounding my yoga room pavilion.

People who once existed to me only in concept were suddenly being, in person, face to face. And from that, we were able to grow closer over the two-day seminar, coming to appreciate and trust each other in a person-to-person way that simply isn't possible across any communication medium.

And to them, much the same experience was happening. The Health Ranger -- an online personification of a theoretical individual -- suddenly became real to them, too, almost like turning the pages of a pop-up book and discovering a real person walking off the page and into your living room.

The fact that this experience was noteworthy for all of us is, in itself, a disturbing commentary on the state of internet social interaction today. We think we know our virtual friends (or celebrities), but we really don't. We don't know each other until we meet in person, and even then, our experiences of each other are often filtered through the thick haze of preconceptions acquired from virtual contact on the 'net.

The balanced use of the internet

I believe the internet has tremendous potential for uplifting human civilization. It is obviously a tremendous medium for transmitting knowledge, for aggregating the wisdom of many and for bridging the cultures of the world.

But if the internet is used as a replacement for real human interaction it becomes a hindrance to human progress. An entire generation becomes lost in the virtuality of fictitious spaces and make-believe friendships. Connection with the real world is lost, and netizens, glued to their virtual worlds, eventually find themselves utterly incapable of existing outside their fabricated, artificially-illuminated worlds.

These people, in a very real way, become domesticated. In exactly the same way that a domesticated dog cannot survive in the wild, domesticated humans cannot survive outside the manicured mazes of concrete cities and fiber optic data pipelines. They almost become a new race of people -- Homo netizens -- with soft fingers and skin unable to wield simple tools; with pale skin unable to bear sunlight; with a complete inability to recognize and name a single food crop growing in a farmer's field. These Homo netizens have ventured into their own imaginary worlds and created fictitious friendships, fictitious personalities and in the case of MMORPGs, even fictitious, thriving economies.

The problem is that none of these things are real. One moment without electricity and their entire universe collapses into nothingness. One cut of the fiber optic line and those twenty thousand virtual friends vanish in an instant, to be replaced only by the bitter loneliness of an empty room, a disheveled bed and a hunk of useless electronics on a decrepit desk.

Keep it in balance

If you want to see an amazing demonstration of social networking insanity, take a teenager who's immersed in the internet and make him go camping in the woods for 72 hours, with no laptop, no PSP, no electricity and no mobile phone for texting. The kid demonstrates a kind of biochemical, brain-busting withdrawal that's eerily similar to someone coming off a bad crack habit.

I don't say this in jest: This is a very real phenomenon that alludes to the depth of the behavioral distortions created by an unhealthy attachment to online social networking and online gaming.

What we are collectively witnessing with all this is the drowning of a generation of people in a world of delusion, devoid of real meaning, abundant only in its ability to trigger the brain into believing some real connection is taking place. Online social networking is the social equivalent of playing slot machines in Vegas -- it preys upon the behavioral "addictions" of people who come to depend on a repetitive, fabricated stimulus that ultimately delivers nothing of value in the real world.

There's nothing wrong with a little online networking if it's pursued within the frame of having a real life, with real friends in the real world. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and online gaming can be experienced responsibly by those able to maintain balance. The danger emerges when people allow their lives to become immersed in these virtual realities at the expense of abandoning their existence in the real world.

If we choose to use social networking sites, we must strive to keep our lives in balance by remembering the real, physically-present people around us. And parents must be especially vigilant to avoid losing their children to the seductive pull of online worlds that far too many children and teens secretly wish could replace their real lives.

Adventuring into imaginary worlds can be a wonderfully entertaining and educational experience. Just don't forget to come back to the real world.

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