My Own Private Bolivia

I’m good with people. In social situations, even in front of a large group of people, I am in my element. I don’t know if I’m good at reading people, or if I’m just completely deluded in my self evaluation, but I feel like even when introduced to a complete stranger I instinctively know what to do.

I don’t even try that hard most of the time. I flick the switch in my brain that diverts all available power to the social situation array. I put on whatever mask seems best to fit the moment and go about the happy business of being charming. Whether people react because I am genuinely wooing them into the comfortable sphere of my social influence, or because they see how much I need to have everyone like me and take pity, I don’t know, but I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel like I knew exactly what to do in a social environment.

The exact opposite is true in online social communication.

I hate Facebook. I don’t know how to manage it. I don’t know how to act. I don’t even know who to talk to and when. It is an alien landscape populated with invisible pits and titanic crags, an H. R. Giger nightmare.

Someone I haven’t heard from in a decade just sent me a virtual hug? What the hell am I supposed to do with that, exactly? What is friend finder and why does it think I'm dying to hang out with crazy people? Do I really want to expose this person, whom I know professionally, to the Minotaur’s Maze that is my private social circle? Wait, can everyone see these pictures that were just posted of me by someone else? Why the hell did I sign up for this exactly, anyway?

At first, I wanted to make an effort to stay in touch with some long-lost friends, but then I realized that if I only included these long lost friends it might look like I hadn’t met anyone in the years since. “Poor Sean,” they would whisper in quiet corners of the internet where people gather to conspire against me, “holding desperately on to the friendships of yesteryear. So sad. Also did you see that picture someone else posted of him? Who the hell is that pouring Corona into his mouth?!”

Then I added some current friends to balance things out nicely. But now that seems wrong because, let’s be honest, I wear a different mask with them than I do with my old friends. And, now my wife wants me to be her Facebook friend, but I don’t necessarily want to be visible to all of her friends and family and envelop them into the horrible mixing pot that is becoming my online social sphere.

How, exactly, do you decline a friend request from your wife?

I am the George Costanza of online social interaction. I like keeping the people around me very separate, and as these discrete social circles begin to crash, I feel, as he did, like worlds are colliding. I am the Soviet Bloc of relationships, except instead of one Berlin Wall I’ve got dozens criss-crossing to and fro. But now these lines of demarcation seem not so safe, and the invasion forces on each side are massing.

Even when I do bring myself into some online communication space, I still don’t know how to act. A friend who I’ve not seen in more than a decade just had a death in the family, and I spent a day wondering whether to leave him a message of condolence on Facebook or not. I eventually did, and he seemed grateful, so I assume that was the right thing to do, but now I feel like I’ve exposed myself to having to console every ill that befalls the online people in my life, and by God do some of these folks have a constant stream of ills. Does this mean that next time I will need to espouse a few dozen words in memory of Bumblina the Cat, the loving pet of this girl I once went to a few parties with when I was 20?

Dear Kevin, I was sorry to hear about your loss in the intramural basketball playoffs at your community college. Keep working on that mid-range jumper, bud. Best, Sean.

People seem to feel that every neuron that fires in their brains deserve a global audience. I could barely put up with that for one person, but when I have 30 or 40 people I’m trying to juggle, I just can’t manage. What do I do with the person who has now become an extreme advocate for a particular political agenda? What do I do with the guy who overpopulates my Twitter feed about whether Sharp Cheddar is better on nachos than mild? Wait, who are you again and why am I being told which Care Bear you are most like?

I have to admit that my inclination is to nuke the entire thing from orbit; to just go dark and let everyone not directly involved in my current affairs think that I was perhaps struck down suddenly by some kind of ancient and malevolent evil. Sean’s status is: moving to Boliva, hoping not to be killed by a venomous spider. That sounds good.

Sometimes I think that might actually be nice. I would rise in the morning, watch some kids weave baskets, eat some fresh Papaya, ride a Kangaroo … okay, I don’t know crap about Bolivia, but I assume it’s a place where no one ever runs up and asks if you’d like to join their Mafia Wars family. But, then of course, I’d also be without the actual friends that I have somehow managed to cultivate online. And, let’s be honest, they are there too.

There’s my Monday group of World of WarCraft addicts who make me laugh like a hyena with their adorable condescension and unrestrained nerdiness. There are these forums where people of incredible talent and humor engage in discussions profane and genius. There are these clowns that I do a podcast with week after week who do me the great favor of laughing at a good 47% of my jokes, which I must admit is above average. And, of course, there’s this guy I actually run a website with who I would say something nice about if he weren’t standing right over there.

As I think about it, I begin to realize that I have some very healthy online relationships — it’s just that they started there. They feel natural in this environment, and the problem is not with them but more often with the people I tried to bring out of reality and into virtuality. The big mistake was going back to people who I had had the good sense to move on from a decade ago and asking if they’d like to hang out with me online. It was a social chain reaction like dropping a ping pong ball into a tank full of mousetraps, or more specifically like dropping me into a tank full of mousetraps, and I have the virtual welts to prove it.

This online social experiment, one that I assume many people enjoy because they sure seem to talk a lot, is just not for me. I will keep and cultivate my online social experience in the confines of my own private Bolivia, and there will be strict borders monitored by space marines riding armored cybernetic bears. Just thinking about it fills me with a peace I’ve not known for some time now.

Comments

Bolivia? Sounds more like you have your own private Madagascar.

[size=2]I may be missing the joke[/size]

I actually have the exact opposite reaction to you. I feel hideously uncomfortable in real-life social situations but don't have a problem reconnecting with old friends via the Net - or indeed, chatting with current ones. I have friends with whom I have a hard time making "small talk" if we're sitting in the pub yet can banter with the best of them on Facebook, Twitter and forums.

I agree that a lot of the stuff on Facebook is pointless crap though. Mafia Wars in particular can eat something unpleasant and choke on it.

Elysium wrote:

As I think about it, I begin to realize that I have some very healthy online relationships — it’s just that they started there. They feel natural in this environment, and the problem is not with them but more often with the people I tried to bring out of reality and into virtuality. The big mistake was going back to people who I had had the good sense to move on from a decade ago and asking if they’d like to hang out with me online. It was a social chain reaction like dropping a ping pong ball into a tank full of mousetraps, or more specifically like dropping me into a tank full of mousetraps, and I have the virtual welts to prove it.

This rings especially true for me, and is one of the reasons I don't have a facebook account. My real life friends I like to manage in real life. My long lost friends are long lost for a reason. My online friends are all pretty much here. What else do I need?

I actually have the exact opposite reaction to you. I feel hideously uncomfortable in real-life social situations but don't have a problem reconnecting with old friends via the Net - or indeed, chatting with current ones.

This is a response I was very much expecting and interested in. I feel like you could put me in front of an auditorium full of people, give me a microphone and I could get that audience on my side in no time flat. I read everywhere that people have a fear of public speaking, and while I may get the sweaty palms -- I find it exhilarating. The more people I can hold court with, so to speak, the more "on" I feel.

I used to be part of a business group of about 30 people. Every week we were required to stand up for a minute and give a brief commercial of sorts about our business. Week after week I'd see people stand up shaking like a leaf, talking to the floor, voice quaking like they were talking from a car on a cobblestone road. I sympathized but didn't understand. I looked forward to my turn to talk, and if I didn't get at least one laugh then I was disappointed.

A big part of my job every day is doing phone interviews, often for 2 hours or more, with highly paid professionals. It's very tricky work, and I still get a little nervous before calls because you're walking into a totally unpredictable situation. I've had maybe 2 calls where I couldn't get the person on my side. If I had to do it online, by e-mail or such, instead of on the phone or in person I think I'd probably quit. I can't imagine making connections in that kind of environment.

After years of teaching, even though I'm an introvert at heart I feel comfortable in front of groups or individuals. Over the net, if it's e-mail I'm comfortable. However, if it's that strange in-between of instant messenger, Facebook, Facebook chat, Skype, Ventrilo, etc. then I'm uncomfortable and generally awkward. Something about sitting in my office in front of a computer trying to read people's moods and judge their mental states makes me queasy. As I'm certain, in my head, that I'm misreading everything and offending/missing the point left and right.

Elysium wrote:

And, of course, there’s this guy I actually run a website with who I would say something nice about if he weren’t standing right over there.

Aw, you guys are so cute!

Once again, you have invaded my head in respect of social networking. I just don't understand how it works, or, more importantly, why.

I have me mentioned previously that I am a big fan of Stephen Fry. I was recently strong-armed into joining Twitter, and decided to follow Mr. Fry, since he seems to be the poster-boy for it over here. It just seems to be an endless stream of banality, frankly; it may be well written banality, but that is still all that it is.

Facebook is equally confusing to me. I joined purely because someone put some photos of a camping trip I was on up there, and I wanted to see them. For a few months, I only had a couple of close friends and family members of my list, but eventually expanded to see if a bigger list would allow me to click into it. It didn't. I really don't care that a probation who was sitting behind me in Court 4 hours ago seems to need endless help in Mafia Wars. All the knowledge that my junior colleague at work has opened another bottle of wine means to me is that she is clearly drinking too much (and really needs to stop posting that fact of Facebook, bearing in mind half of our managers are on her list).

What has happened is that I have started to treat my social interactions online in much the same way that I do in the real world; I largely ignore everyone, except for the couple of times a year when I check in with someone on a random whim.

I like meeting new people on forums such as this, or on Xbox Live, and have forged some decent friendships as a result. Forums (or at least the decent ones) don't tend to be populated with the waves of triviality that blight Facebook by design, and there is a very focused common goal on XBL, at least when you first meet someone.

I made a decision a while ago to keep my personalities reasonably segregated in online social circles. Twitter is for podcast friends and fans, Facebook is for high school & hometown connections, and Livejournal is for diatribes & long exposition. I cross-pollenate at times, finding myself dreadfully uncomfortable with the one-sided politics I see on facebook, but for the most part I'm comfortable with how I've divided it up. People who go from online acquaintances to RL friends will often end up on multiple groups, and I'm ok with that.

I generally don't touch Facebook. It's there, I guess, but I don't bother actually checking unless I'm told to check it by someone else (usually my fiancee). I don't understand the need for everyone to update their news feed with every little new thing in their life. Then again, it could just be because that I'm the type to be choosy what I let people know.

@Elysium: (I don't yet have quoting privileges, it seems.)

Actually, you know what? I don't have a problem with public speaking. I got up and gave an awesome speech at my wedding that everyone really enjoyed. I stand in front of a class of nine-year olds every day and, when they're not being annoying, I enjoy teaching them things. I like giving presentations.

It's chitchat, small talk - whatever you want to call it - that I find difficult. Except when I'm writing it, rather than saying it.

I also hate phone conversations.

I can't stand social media that lacks complete content and identity control.

I can't hide my Friends list from anyone who's my friend? Really, Facebook? Everyone on my Friends list gets to see all my other Friends, with no granularity? How about I just don't use you, Facebook?

And I can't change my username once I sign up with my real name? Facebook (and my wife, and many of my co-workers) have no idea about my checkered past, and I started referring to Facebook as DivorceBook as old relationships started appearing in my Friend Request queue. Really, I can mess up my marriage on my own; I don't need Facebook pointing out old relationships with that kinky submissive female rodeo clown. Or reminding me that I'm not longer WITH that kinky submissive rodeo clown. Damn it.

I want to be able to decide which of my friends gets to see he rest of my friends list. I want nothing published to my wall by default; I want to have to click a button every time I want something globally visible. I don't want to have to obsess over who can see what, and which application might open up privacy channels I thought were effectively closed.

So, no Facebook for me. My blog is anonymous, and I only tell people I know online about it. I like my online life and my offline life pretty separate. I've considered a sithload Facebook account, but to be honest, Facebook doesn't offer too many services that I actually enjoy. I like message boards and blogs and good online games, and Facebook fails on each count. Count me as a vote for Bolivia.

Angry Jedi wrote:

It's chitchat, small talk - whatever you want to call it - that I find difficult. Except when I'm writing it, rather than saying it.

I've always felt that my chitchat brain worked at the same speed my fingers typed. I think too long about my responses in social chitchat situations, and that pace seems to stall small-talk moments.

Bravo, Sithload. Consider yourself qualified for a Bolivian visa.

I've had a Facebook account for a couple years now; I was invited by a friend, accepted and never did anything with it. Only in the last month have I actually learned how to use it. I found out I could link my twitter to update my Facebook, so now I don't have to update Facebook.

I also have a twitter account and use that more often, I don't update it very often, but when I do I am cautious in my use of it. Why you ask, well my Father, who is also a dear friend, has a twitter account too, and follows my twitter feed. It's not that I would tweet anything bad, it's just that even at the age of 30 I am concerned how I appear in my Dads my eyes. I don't want him or other friends to know every game I play or am interested in. So for example during the run-up to the release of MW2 I wanted to follow Robert Bowling's(Infinity Ward) twitter feed I actually created a second twitter to do so.

As far as public speaking goes I have received a lot of training growing up on public speaking so I don't have an issue speaking on a topic in front of a 100+ people.

I am however more nervous in small groups, especially if I don't know the people well and don't know where my boundaries are with them. I have to force myself to keep eye contact, force myself to be part of the conversation. On the phone I am very to the point, what, when, where, click - That I beleive will never change.

I'm the same way Elysium but mine extends to message boards. I know I probably come off as some abrasive douchnozzle online and in forums but I'm completely the opposite IRL. I'm very folksy and congenial and have no problem talking to total strangers. I've always had difficulty perceiving tonality, sarcasm, jibing, etc. over a message board.

In regards to social networking, I've actually been debating nuking my Facebook profile. No worries about Twitter; I've had the good sense to stay away from it.

The people I already care to stay in touch with, I do. Facebook just made me findable by every person I've rubbed elbows with in my life and it's ridiculous. I had a kid I never said 5 words to in high school request to friend me the other day presumably after seeing me on a friends list of a friend we had in common. So if I accept, I go on not talking to this guy as I've done since high school only now I have the added benefit of hearing about his day-to-day crapola which I have absolutely zero interest in. Yet if I decline to add him as a friend, why do I feel like an ass?

Maybe I just need to do a purge and drop everyone that I could care less about and ignore any new friend request from some doorknob I never spoke to in high school. I actually do have some nice conversations on Facebook with people I care about and am genuinely interested in their well being. I just haven't logged into Facebook in like two weeks and it's totally just so that I don't have to accept/deny some friend requests and see just how more boring than mine the lives are of people I don't even care about or know that well.

Ya know what? Screw it. A purge it is. Why should I shy away from going on Facebook to talk to the people I do care about all to avoid friend requests? I need to stop being such a pussy.

Glad we had this talk!

Gravey likes this.

I'm also in the same boat as FSeven. When I post online, I often go back and read it later and feel like I came off as a jerk.

With Facebook, I firmly believe that you should not put everything online and can't stand those that do. But I also find myself second-guessing what I should and should not post. I overthink it way too much and therefore go between times of posting too much vs. not at all. In a strange way I kinda admire people who don't give a damn and post everything. At the very least it's entertaining.

Cheers,
Tom

I've actually been to Bolivia. It's an interesting country.

My wife keeps bugging me about getting on facebook, but I just don't see the need for it. I really don't need to know what lost friends are doing. Probably the same as me; eating breakfast, going to work, going home watching some tv and falling asleep. No one but your family cares, folks.

Twitter on the other hand has become a fairly useful tool to me. I can't sit and surf tons and tons of design blogs / sites and game related sites every day. I keep my twitter list free from "I just ate an egg and it was tasty" kind of posts and subscribe to designers and sites which interest me professionally instead. It saves me time. The occasional screwball gets in there as well *eyes Certis*.

I like keeping the people around me very separate, and as these discrete social circles begin to crash, I feel, as he did, like worlds are colliding.

Keep your friends close, but don't let them talk to each other.

I wanna friend you up.

Wow. It was a well written article but I feel you are searching for pity.

You don't need pity. The easy solution to your situation is to learn how to setup groups within Face Book. Once your groups are setup, you can set which groups can see which posts or pictures you decide to share.

Also, you will learn very quickly who amongst your friends posts every ten seconds about the tea they just made expecting comments. If you can't ignore these posts and feel you must comment, maybe Face Book isn't for you. If you feel the need to cuss those same people out for their stupid posts maybe Face Book isn't for you.

Also, you might not want to know certain things about the friends you have. (Let's just marinate on that statement for awhile...)

An option you might like is instead of your friends pushing their comments and status on you, get a Twitter account and link it to your Face Book and force all of your commentary on all of your friends! Flip the script my friend! This option removes the need to interact with you friends. You can speak AT them instead of WITH them. Problem solved.

In my opinion, Face Book is a way to self-validate. Yes you can connect with friends however in the end,

Spoiler:

its all about you...

Frankly, I don't understand the problem. I'm on facebook, and dealing with it seems simple to me:

Don't post. Never post anything important.

What to keep in touch with old friends? Great - find them on facebook, friend them, get their email addresses. Don't have time to write email? Then you don't really have time to 'keep in touch' with your friends. Constant updates about what salad you're making for dinner is more or less useless. Photos of your kids are all right, provided they're not daily updates. But in reality, I don't care at all about the posts of people who seem to post every day. If you don't post, no one remembers they're friended with you. Problem solved.

However, the fundamental issue here may not be your social aptitude, but rather your desire to have a large circle of intimates. Doesn't work. You can have a large circle of casual friends, or a small circle of intimates, or even both. But you can't have a large circle of intimates, and not everyone who used to be an intimate can stay that way.

Elysium, you were part of a BNI group?

Just curious, as a former member myself, if the groups in your area are run by unemployed or barely employed pyramid scheme "businessmen." That sure seems to be the case here. Every time the director would start telling me how to land a big client or something, I'd start thinking about his broken down car, his business card with 5 different companies on it, and his suit that didn't fit quite right and had to keep myself from laughing.

Elysium, you were part of a BNI group?

I was indeed.

Just curious, as a former member myself, if the groups in your area are run by unemployed or barely employed pyramid scheme "businessmen."

Actually it was a very credible group. Sure, there were a few questionable professions, but we had realtors, lawyers, landscapers, printers, painters, dentists, and so on. I got some pretty good business over the year I was in.

We won some kind of award as a group for exceeding $1 million referred within the group. Now a lot of that was 1 or 2 deals that I wasn't a part of, but they were totally legit.

Wow. It was a well written article but I feel you are searching for pity.

Actually I was just trying to write an article that might make someone laugh.

Pity never looked so tasty!

IMAGE(http://img13.imageshack.us/img13/2391/seattlepity.jpg)

Yall have control issues. Just friend the people and forget about them. They just want to see how fat you are now, 10 years later.

I've been introduced as "Twitter's Justin Whitaker", so I feel like I should come in as Ambassador to Elysium's Bolivia...but I am not going to.

Social networking, at least in the Twitter/Facebook sense are not for everyone. Some people get it, some don't. If it works for you great, if not, you should not feel obliged to share.

That said, the whole thesis of this post is erroneous. This forum is a social network. The Conference Call is a podcast; that's social too.

So to say "this whole social thing ain't for me" is actually erroneous. You are participating, just in your own way. Which is fine. We can address your control issues later.

Just don't be surprised if you do a search on yourself and find us all talking behind your back: on Twitter and Facebook.

Elysium wrote:

This is a response I was very much expecting and interested in. I feel like you could put me in front of an auditorium full of people, give me a microphone and I could get that audience on my side in no time flat. I read everywhere that people have a fear of public speaking, and while I may get the sweaty palms -- I find it exhilarating. The more people I can hold court with, so to speak, the more "on" I feel.

Is it the absence of feedback? When you are feeling "on" in front of an auditorium of people, you are probably in a positive feedback loop. Not unlike a musician or pastor. You perform the caller function in the Call and Response game. However, when you are online there is a deadening delay or absence of feedback sometimes. You can't see physical reactions or hear inflections in the response that might tell you more about the situation than the actual words that are being said.

In short, I feel the online experience has a natural tendency to sterilize conversation, and it takes effort and clever word choices to bring clarity into the online conversation. You have absolutely no problem livening up online conversation!

...and the article was kinda funny.

I'd agree there. I also find that online interaction is missing something - the absence of physical minutiae that make the experience real.
The ability to deal with that level of interaction, normally running at full tilt, sits to my left stewing in an unpleasant sulk.

Excellent article about coming to terms with communication and expectations in the digital age. Really enjoyed this, thanks for writing and sharing.