June 25, 2007

Outsourcing Friendship

I suppose I should have expected that I'd be posting again here. Whatever issues lead to the brief closing of these pages have been resolved, and even the Action Alert to rescue Target Theory was successful. But alas, I have found myself without much inspiration to write, no topic that kindled an urge to share any thoughts. Even though I said I would continue, I haven't written anything significant in over a month. Of course, the solution to this is to simply write about not being able to write.

It is no surprise that blogging is so popular; the sense of community that comes with it is quite astounding. The Internet is vast, and typically anyone can find a place they fit in somewhere, somehow, no matter how absurd their interests. People will naturally find others who share their views and opinions; it is only the natural next step that they share their feelings and concerns. Eventually, some share their secrets. Formerly strangers, they are now a family of sorts, their lives are inextricably connected.

Whether we like it or not, on-line communities have become an important part of our society. I work closely with people I have never met, but they are no less a part of my team than those I see every day. My professional community consists mostly of people I rarely meet, if ever. But the location independence of these relationships are what make them so effective; I rarely spend more than four days in a row in the same city, and any relationship that required physical presence would fail. My work would suffer as a result. Because distance is not an impediment to these relationships, we remain functional and productive.

From a professional standpoint, I can accept this. In order to compete in an increasingly globalized society, one must leverage all the human potential one has access to, wherever that potential may reside. If someone in India can help me do my job better, then by all means I will enlist his help. The technology exists to allow this person to help me in almost any way. The unfortunate consequence of this is that the person down the street looking for a job may be overlooked in favour of the eager, cheaper supply of skills overseas. Much has been written on this topic already, and I don't want to repeat what has already been discussed to death.

When this sort of relationship penetrates our personal lives, things become a little more complicated. As part of our fitra, our state of nature, we rely on the physical closeness of people to remain socially healthy. As children, it begins with our family, our parents in particular. That physical closeness, that most fundamental social structure dictates the people we become as we grow up. It plays into our early childhood, as we navigate through the hierarchy of primary school. There is always the socially awkward group, there are always the bullies, there are those in between. Children will undoubtedly jump from one group to another; one can't be typecast as a bully forever, for example, based solely on their behaviour in the first grade. But it is because of healthy social interactions that one will move away from dirty playground politics, towards a friendlier future.

While psychologists will never stop debating the roles of nature and nurture in human development, it is clear that one's upbringing has a significant impact on their behaviour as adults. An unhealthy upbringing is often the warning sign of an unbalanced individual, and analysts will often look at the social interactions of a suspect to identify their motivations when a crime is committed.

So when those social interactions move entirely out of the physical realm and into cyberspace, will this have the same impact on developing a person as traditional social interaction? In the same way that local talent is often overlooked in favour of resources abroad, we will often overlook our local communities for friendship in favour of on-line, "outsourced friendship". We are only at the beginning stages of this right now; on-line social networking is still in it's infancy. Most of us still remember a time before the Internet, even though we may not look upon it with fondness. But in this part of the world, anyway, we are the last generation like this; I can still remember what life was like before Wikipedia, when even simple high school research required time and effort. I can still remember when communication with my cousins was limited to the rare occasions of expensive long distance phone calls and six-hour road trips. Future generations will not know such a world; anything less than instant access won't be enough. I do prefer things as they are today, but at least I recall when things weren't so simple, so that I can better appreciate how far we have come.

On-line forums were all the rage at a point, and I had become quite active in one several years ago. What I discovered there was the ability to be someone else, perhaps someone better. In that particular forum, being "better" was debatable; my on-line persona was a thugged out cereal mascot, part of a gangster legion played out by my friends. But however we represented ourselves, random people came to like us, admire us, and even trust us with their deepest feelings.

One young member of that forum happened to be contemplating suicide at the time, and e-mailed me privately for help. While the suicide thoughts were the product of simple teenage angst and disaffected emo culture, unlikely to materialize into anything substantial, he took whatever advice I provided to heart. Eventually, the troubled child changed his mind. For months, this member thanked me for saving his life, even though my contribution was negligible at best. I don't believe to this day that I wrote anything special or beyond what any decent individual might say, but the value of an on-line friendship became apparent to me then. I never thought much about it, but in this child's troubled youth, my thugged out cereal mascot became something of a saviour.

I kept thinking about why there was no one real to have offered that same advice. All I told him was that there was still so much to be thankful for, in spite of what he perceived to be significant personal problems. That little amount of kindness and optimism was apparently the only kindness he had been shown in years. I would have considered his case to be an exceptional one, except that over the years, numerous other on-line acquaintances from that forum have thanked me similarly for renewing their faith in humanity. That particular forum eventually closed, but I still occasionally get e-mails from it's members thanking me for the positive influence I left on them.

Has the world become so cruel that we require outsourced friendships? Do on-line relationships lessen the value of personal contact in any way? These concerns have plagued me for some time now.

I pose these questions, ironically, out to the Internet, where approximately 95% of my readers appear to be from cities and countries that I have no actual contact with. Your thoughts on the topic would be much appreciated.

June 07, 2007

Action Alert: Save Target Theory!

When I wrote that I would be ending this blog, I didn't expect it to set off a reaction that would indirectly lead to the end of the blog of my cousin Nauman. Most of you who read my blog either only came to know of it's existence through Nauman, or have become fans of Nauman through my link.

And now he wants to leave! I feel responsible and rather disappointed by this, so I'm briefly reopening comments in order for you, loyal readers and ex-readers, to show your support for Nauman through your comments. In spite of his melancholic nature, Nauman remains a champion of good will and dependability for all his friends and family, and is among my short list of favourite people I have the pleasure of being related to.

So sign away! Let Nauman know that you want his voice to be heard!

Update 6.14.2007: Success! Well done, team.