Social networking changes concept of conversation

Thursday, April 30, 2009 | 9:12 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 3, 2009

Maybe, it’s just because I know so many interesting people that it never occurred to me to enter a chat room. And some of my friends and associates are all so well-rounded that I can’t think of any subject that I might want to discuss that I couldn’t find any number of them who are conversant on the subject.

And to be absolutely honest I don’t think it has anything to do with my lack of electronic literacy. But it could easily be due to the fact that I have an aversion to not speaking in person to those with whom I am talking. Actually, I’m not really a good telephone user. I’m one of those people who can listen to a phone ring for half-an-hour and not answer it. I’m not even mildly curious about who is on the other end of the line.

So while I am aware of the popularity of social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, I can’t imagine that I would ever be interested in joining one. And I certainly didn’t think it would be long before someone would find some inappropriate or illegal uses for text messaging information to these sites. And so it turns out, jurors in some areas of the country have been engaging in this kind of communication in violation of the law. In some places, jurors have used the networking sites to poll their friends as to how they might vote on a verdict. Some have discussed their biases before the jury begins to deliberate. In Missouri, a St. Louis Circuit judge has proposed a change in jury instruction to include admonishing jurors against using e-mail and discussing cases onWeb sites during a trial.

I can see why lawyers and judges would find jurors violating their jury instructions a serious matter. This could lead to mistrials, more appeals, cases being thrown out of court and all sorts of miscarriages of justice. I know what they are up against. Frankly, I have friends who are convinced that the Constitution guarantees them the right to use their cell phones anytime and any place they choose. These are all people whom I am sure would otherwise be declared to be of sound mind.

It will be interesting to see how historians describe this period in American history. For years, we have heard of husbands and wives, parents and children complaining because the other party refused to talk to them. Nowadays, the problem seems to be getting people to shut up. So many individuals seem to feel a compulsion to talk to anyone, anywhere and at any time. They are talking or texting while they are behind the driver’s wheel, cooking dinner, painting the house, doing the laundry, golfing or visiting the library. And no public place is safe from electronic devices invading your privacy one way or another.

There was a time when privacy was a great concern to Americans. Now that they can be caught on camera anywhere or their private conversations heard over the airwaves, the matter is seldom afforded a second thought. As it is, I know more about some individual’s personal business by having no choice but to listen to them talk on their cell phones in public places than I ever wanted to know.

Sometimes, I wonder if people who spend all this time on their electronic toys have enough time left to communicate with their friends and families in person? How many people have forgotten that there are advantages to talking to your loved ones face to face that you can’t avail yourself of when you are in one place and they are some place else. There are people in fact who communicate far more information in body language than they do verbally. They tell you about how they feel emotionally – whether they are happy, sad, disappointed – things they may be reluctant to express vocally.

Modern technology has certainly made our lives easier. But I believe there are many ways in which some of it may have diminished the quality of our lives. I’m not sure, for example, if all of this constant chatter does anything to cement our relationships. How much of this stay-in-touch routine is merely habit and how much is sincere caring?

For some people, Twittering has become a way of life. We can only wish that common courtesy would catch on that fast.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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Erich Vieth May 3, 2009 | 8:18 p.m.

Rose: I consider myself to be tech-savvy, but I am not sold on Twitter and Facebook as ways of maintaining meaningful friendships. I DO think that these are good tools for finding lost friends and old classmates.

Based on the chatter I see on these sites, however, I don't see these tools as ways of doing much more than reading a gossip sheet. Primatologist Robin Dunbar has done research showing that it takes a substantial investment in time and energy to maintain a close friendship, and that we don't really have the cognitive capacity for expanding our circle of close friends beyond a couple dozen; we don't have the cognitive capacity of expanding our meaningful friends beyond 150. When I see that some people have 1,000 "friends," then, I know that something else is going on, not the maintenance of meaningful relationships.

Should one use Twitter and Facebook, then? Absolutely, but they are like any other tool. They are valuable only if you understand the limitations of these tools.

Erich Vieth

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W. Arthur Mehrhoff May 26, 2009 | 9:58 a.m.

Very thoughtful comment, Erich Vieth, on our tech-aided tendency to sacrifice depth for a wider reach.

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