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2008 September 22 - 12:00 am


There’s always been a generation gap, more or less, with the younger generation trying to improve on the latter. Seeing things differently, trying for new solutions to old problems, is one of the agents of progress.

Today’s generation gap manifests itself perhaps most with digital social networking. Unlike in the Sixties when those younger than 30 couldn’t trust those older about politics, lifestyles, and other issues, today’s young people are more likely to heavily use digital social networks whereas those older are less likely.

Whether the digital device used for social networking is a cell phone, MP3 player, or personal computer connected to such Web-based social networking services as MySpace (www.myspace.com) and Facebook (www.facebook.com), the imperative is to stay connected. Social scientists call it “ambient awareness.”

It can get taken to an absurd extreme, when for instance you’re waiting in line as an 18-year-old clerk yaks to his buddy on his cell phone, or texts him using his iPod, about the moron he waited on just before you, perhaps prompting the same annoyance in you and for the same reason as that experienced by the previous customer.

Are other people really interested in the mundane minute-by-minute minutiae of your existence? Apparently, judging by the popularity of such newer offerings as Twitter (www. twitter.com), which promotes itself as a “microblogging” service where you can stay “hyper-connected” to your friends.

People use Twitter, a free advertising-supported service, by sending and receiving short text messages, 140 words or less, using a PC or cell phone, about what they’re doing. It even includes the question, “What are you doing?” after its name in the title line of its Web site. As of this writing more than two million people have signed up to use Twitter to broadcast, you guessed it, what they’re doing.

The absurdity, or fun, of spending your time this way gets hotly debated online, as does just about everything else. The sometimes nonverbal context of the debate relates to age, with many older folks regarding digital social networking as narcissistic and many younger folks contending their elders just don’t get it.

The fact is that new techniques have always been adopted more readily by young people. Computerphobia has been around since the inception of computers, and it afflicts those who came of age using typewriters and slide rules much more than those weaned on PCs.

The adage about old dogs is partially true here. Older folks tend to get complacent, finding what works and sticking to it, which can sometimes land them in a rut. Young people, with minds more malleable, have an easier time learning new ways. Trying out the new, however, takes not only intellectual curiosity but also time, which younger people typically have more of than those with jobs, families to support and other responsibilities.

Still, even with people pressed for time, digital social networks can be useful. Many people, both young and mature, have reported using these services to find jobs, an online extension and improvement of traditional networking using the phone, the mail, and the visit. Those who travel a lot through their jobs or are self-employed use digital social networks as a weapon against solitude.

Just as with other forms of online communication, digital social networking can be a good way to get consumer advice when making a purchase and point you in the right direction or provide support when confronting a health problem.

No matter what your age, social networking works best socially when it brings people together in real life. It can be a great way, for instance, to quickly organize a social event among your friends, from a dinner party to a meeting at a local club.

Despite its reliance on cutting-edge technology, digital social networking can take you back in time, adding a small-town flavor to your life, where your circle knows everything about everybody, for better or worse.

As with many things, balance here is key. Digital social networks used judiciously can improve the quality of life. But they shouldn’t replace face time—contact of the genuine kind. One of the negative consequences of the computer revolution is the digital shut-in.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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