Why Social Networks Are Good for the Kids

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brain-fullThe other day I asked somewhat tongue-in-cheek whether Tom Friedman had ever visited Silicon Valley. Today, I’m wondering if Lady Greenfield has ever used a social networking site.

The professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford and the director of the Royal Institution has the United Kingdom up in a tizzy about the idea that Facebook, Bebo and Twitter are warping their children’s minds.

She warned that social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

I’m not a psychologist, nor am I a parent, so let me start by saying she might be right that these sites are harmful in some cognitive way. But I think she’s wrong to assume social networking is devoid of a “cohesive narrative and long-term significance.” I can see where she’s coming from, but like a lot of people who don’t actually use these sites, she’s missing a fundamental shift from Web 1.0 chat room days to Web 2.0 social networks: Real identity.

We no longer “go to the Internet” to interact with some shadowy user name where we pretend to be someone we’re not. Ok, maybe people on Second Life do. But sites like Facebook and Twitter are more about extending your real identity and relationships online. That’s what makes them so addictive: The little endorphin rushes from reconnecting with an old friend, the ability to passively stay in touch with people you care about but don’t have the time to call everyday.

Facebook makes me a more considerate friend because I now remember people’s birthdays. Over Geni, I stay in touch with my niece who I used to see once a year, but is now helping me map out our family tree. Via Twitter, my parents and in-laws know everything happening in my life so that when I call home, we have substantive conversations, not the awkward, “So…..whatcha been up to?” variety. In dozens of cases, these sites have made my real human relationships longer lasting and more substantive. They have actually given me a longer narrative, because it has rekindled friendships with dozens of people with whom I’d lost touch.

Greenfield may well have a point when she argues that the young brain can’t handle over-stimulation of “fast action and reaction.” But isn’t that the same argument we’ve been making about all technology and entertainment for decades now? Indeed, I’m of the MTV generation and all those fast cuts and blaring sounds were supposed to warp my brain long ago. (I know some TechCrunch commenters who would argue it has…) Everything has a trade off, and I’d argue the benefits in communications, education and collaboration of the Web far outweigh the negatives, and indeed give us greater benefits than we get from TV or Guitar Hero.

I do share one concern with her: Whether over saturation online leads to a lack of empathy. This is something that is being debated throughout the blogosphere right now. As we all become public personas in our own sphere we’re increasingly subject to the same abuse, scrutiny and haters that actual celebrities have to deal with. Such anonymous venom is, after all, why you are reading a post from me on TechCrunch right now.

But I’m hopeful that the direction social networking is headed in is the answer to this, not the problem. As more of our social graphs move online, via Twitter or Facebook, the more the same social pressures of the real world come to bear. Compare anonymous YouTube comments with Twitter comments. Generally, Twitter is more kind and substantive, especially among users who Twitter under their real names. Now compare that to comments on Facebook. Almost all of the comments on someone’s photo, video, status are supportive and empathetic, because the site has mimicked real world relationships and with that real world pressures.

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