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OFF CENTRE: Friendsing but not friendly

Sherwin Walters

OFF CENTRE: Friendsing but  not friendly

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IT HAPPENED LAST SATURDAY. graphic, shocking, wholly inappropriate pictures from an accident scene were sent flying around cyberspace, causing family members to butt up on their worst nightmare in the worst way.
And thus the long practised, decent approach of next of kin learning of tragedy by the mouth of a solemn, hesitant official or actual friend or family member has now been overridden by the use of a technology whose users are brutishly forsaking a venerable cultural script.
People, many of whom have dozens of “friends”, “followers” or contacts in a “broadcast community” (as with BlackBerry) apparently no longer know how to be friendly. People who are “liking” all over the (cyber) place seemingly don’t really like people. (Get with it: online social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Tumblr allow you to have “friends”
to your heart’s desire. And in the cyberspace world you can do a lot of “liking” too, of people and things.) It seems, though, that with all this “contact” you are not really getting closer to anybody, even those you frequently engage online.
As Jay Baer says in his September 5, 2011 online piece Social Media, Pretend Friends And The Lie Of False Intimacy, “The reality is, we don’t know hardly anyone.” (Some kind of messed up negation there – but I get it: these days we scarcely really know anybody.)
He continues: “I considered Trey Pennington [a well known social media operative who died the day before] a friend. I suspect many of his 100 000+ Twitter followers considered him a friend. Clearly, most of us were not his friends, as his death came as a complete surprise despite the fact that he had a prior suicide attempt earlier this summer . . . .
“But if you’d asked me yesterday morning, I would have said Trey was a friend. Social media forces upon us a feeling of intimacy and closeness that doesn’t actually exist (italics mine).”
Becoming less sensitive
And, I am adding, it seems that as people immerse themselves more and more in the online world, they are becoming less and less sensitive to those who are physically around them. As with the accident pictures.
And more. I may be wrong, but I seem to be encountering more people who pass you without speaking.
It used to be that when you passed somebody (on the street, on the stairs, in one of the spaces at a workplace, in a store, and so on) you would acknowledge them in some way (with a nod, a “Hi” or “Hello”, a quip), playing your part in that ritual of civility.
Yet nowadays, people who are probably in contact with dozens of “friends”/ “followers” who they really don’t know – and who probably pose a serious threat to their reputation, if not their safety – and who are “liking” all sorts of others in cyberspace, are now walking past you as if you are a statue.
Now, we know that in some other countries (I will mention the States because everybody and duh mother in Barbados have been there), lots of people pass you on the street and don’t even say “buh”.
But that is their cultural script. And when we are in Rome, we do as the Romans do too – up there we never want to appear too friendly.
Drummed into us
But our script says you are supposed to speak. It’s been drummed into us from early. Your mother, in particular, used to say that you had to speak to everybody you met – even people with whom she was not on speaking terms, ’cause their not speaking was “big people business” – and not a few children were flogged for not speaking to their mother’s “enemy”.
So you naturally developed the habit of speaking to whoever you met. So much so that you would find some way of re-greeting someone every time, even if you passed them five times in a ten-minute span. About which an England-raised colleague once pulled me up: “But you already spoke to me” – all Cockney-like.
But times are a-changing. People now increasingly pass without a “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”, without even an indeterminate sound, some sign of civility, some sign of connection – and they probably in cyberspace “friendsing” ’way all their secrets to people who would ruin them at the drop of a hat.
Where have civility and sensitivity gone in this cyberspace age? Have they fled but, unlike judgement in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, left us as the brutish beasts, who, ironically, have been trained in disconnection by the Internet?
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.