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Social media can breed fleeting friends

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

Not long ago I overheard a conversation between two college students talking about their friends. Apparently before my eavesdropping had begun, the young man had questioned his companion about why she was friendly toward one of their mutual acquaintances.

“Well,” she said, with that “but-of-course” tone meant to end the discussion, “these are the friends I need at this point in my life.”

As they walked out of my earshot, I knew I would be pondering that comment for a while.

Was she saying she had collected her friends according to their usefulness to her at this stage of her development (young woman, seemingly single, college student, settled in urban West Virginia, perhaps looking for part-employment, full-time relationships, better living quarters, a ride to the grocery store, tips on automobile maintenance, etc.)?

Could we further infer that once a friend no longer filled one of her needs, he or she simply would be jettisoned, to be replaced with Friend 2.0?

We all have friends who come around only when they need something. After a while, we begin to wonder if a “friend” is truly how they see us. Aren’t we simply a weigh station on their journeys?

And I’ve begun to notice this behavior is especially common on social media. Someone may never launch a conversation, never contribute a comment, never share a link or a photo, but then suddenly drop by with a post that says, “Be sure to buy my book!” Or attend my concert. Or support my friend’s charity. Or buy my daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. And then the fly-by flies on, gone again until the next opportunity to promote some product, event or cause.

And I’m left feeling so …. well, feeling what, actually? Used? No, not really, because I don’t know about you, but I almost never accept such invitations from lurking online phantoms. I just can’t put a name on the negative reaction I feel about this online equivalent to a robo-call.

If I delve a little deeper into my pique, I think I detect a little resentment on my part toward a perceived disrespect for the digital community. (And who appointed me to be cyber hall monitor is a topic for another time, I suppose.)

For now, though, am I seriously saying to these net-nobodies that, nope, I can’t pray for your grandmother’s speedy recovery until you first amuse me with videos of your cat chasing a red dot?

Uh-huh, okay, I agree that’s nuts, but what does make one acquaintance seem to be a legitimate member of our virtual community and another merely a computer-toting carpetbagger?

Since the earliest days of online interaction, there have been parallel streams of conversation on what makes for good networking. As early as the mid-1980s, “netizen” evolved as a portmanteau of the words Internet and citizen, and millions of words continue to be uploaded on the subject of good netizenship, with advice like:

DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS, unless you truly are SHOUTING.

Remember your grammar and spelling and keep shorthand to a minimum. (If u rite liek this lol ppl mite start 2 get mad lol.)

Don’t repost without checking the facts (even with those obviously true things, like my Alien Elvis Diet and Cancer Cure from The True Bible.)

These and scores of other suggestions are worthy additions to the lore of digital life, but they focus mainly on etiquette (or “netiquette,” if you will); they don’t address the broader question of what goes into being “authentic” in these online locales.

This was still much on my mind not long ago when my wife and I attended a talk at Marshall University by famed archaeologist Darius Arya. If you watch the National Geographic, Discovery and History channels, you likely know Arya as an expert on classical Roman culture. He has appeared in more than 25 documentaries, including the 2005 Emmy-winning “Rome: Engineering an Empire.”

But Dr. Arya came to Marshall to discuss a new topic of interest to him: “How can we tell stories successfully about history through social media?”

As Arya explained, he and his American Institute for Roman Culture use assorted digital platforms — videos on YouTube and Vimeo, photos on Instagram and Flickr, news updates on Twitter and Facebook, etc. — to spread their knowledge of and enthusiasm for antiquities. Along the way, they also get out the word on urgent needs for specific preservation projects and on opportunities for viewers/readers to contribute to the work. Dr. Arya’s message to the Marshall audience was that the same tools can be used to promote any interest or passion you or your organization might have.

The success of your efforts, he said, depends largely on how well you create a strong web identity. His talk identified several key points in building such a virtual presence, a list that seems to me to get close to the issue of online authenticity that we’re talking about here. Dr. Arya says we all network better when we give priority to several key goals:

Storytelling. Everybody loves a good yarn. Sharing your tales not only invites your online acquaintances into your history, but also gives them a unique peek at the world through your eyes.

Emotional branding. People respond to earnestness, he said. Most of us would like to know why you like what you like, why you disdain what you dislike. Providing those details brings a personal relevance to the discussion, which is much more interesting than mere facts and figures.

Online reputation. Through your ongoing posts, photos and shared links, you can build a body of communications that is predictably reliable, intriguing, insightful and enjoyable. Online acquaintances come to look forward to your next contribution. Over time, you create a role for yourself in their lives.

As I listened, my mind drifted back 35 years to the beginnings of what we now call social media. Old-timers remember the first major computer information services was called The Source, founded in 1978 and at one time owned by Reader’s Digest. The Source was never the largest online service, but arguably it was the hippest. At the center of The Source was some powerful software for mass messaging and interacting by far-fling computerists.

Much of what we do today on the Internet — sharing ideas and stories, arguing, resolving, creating coalitions, making friends, forming plans, commiserating and celebrating — was heralded in that little corner of cyberspace. Fans of The Source called this popular feature “Parti,” but by its full name it was known — rather presciently, I think, in light of how well it sums up the path of a strong web identity — as Participate.

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