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2009 February 9 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Social Networking: Crossing Digital Divide Can Pay Dividends

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

Today’s generation gap manifests itself perhaps most with digital social networking. Unlike in the 1960s, 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. For instance, when you’re waiting in line as an 18-year-old clerk texts his buddy about the moron he just waited on – the customer standing on front of you – it can elicit the same annoyance in you, for the very same reason, as that previous customer experienced.

Are other people really interested in the mundane minute-by-minute minutiae of your existence?

Apparently the answer is “yes,” 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.

Computer-phobia 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 and new tricks 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. Frequently updating others on what you’re up to can also increase your self-awareness, helping you take stock and make better choices in the future.

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.

In Isaac Asimov’s 1957 novel The Naked Sun, people avoid personal contact in the flesh and relate to one another through holographic projection. That’s one computer-aided future best relegated to science fiction.

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

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