What is society? Studies have shown that; evolutionarily; animals that live in social structures tend to have a ‘memory of acquaintances’ i.e. a maximum number of individuals that each individual is directly interlinked and related to. This number within a group varies according to the need for cooperative survival as well as with the intelligence of the species in question. In a pack of wolves, while the alpha male is recognized and deferred to by all the pack members, however among themselves, the relationship between two individuals may be limited merely to their hierarchy in the pack order. Chimpanzees, after humans, have the largest social recognition memories of up to twenty five individual relationships. The number for humans is estimated, based on the cognitive capacity, to be somewhere near twenty -thousand..
Even today, in the information age, there is a need for the individual to be part of a larger social network to meet and satisfy all needs and possible wants. Given the quantity of needs and wants in today’s day and age, it is impossible for an individual to survive alone. Also, given the complexity of the modern social structures and behavioural norms, an individual is expected to conform and adhere to certain rules and forms of behaviour so as to be wholly integrated and accepted into and within society. Of course exceptions exist in the form of recluses and outcasts, the former being accepted on account of superlative contributions in their fields of choice, the latter being sidelined as either criminals or misfits of society. However, it is accepted that to be a part of society, one must firstly conform to a set of minimums. A minimum amount of social contact, as well as a minimum quality of contact is necessary for an individual to be regarded as a healthy, functioning member of society. Hence social networking must always exist, in one form or another. Whether the Forum Romanum, the bazaars of the Persian Empire or the neighbourhood gossip, social networking has always existed throughout the ages. In today’s day and age it is online and electronic, maybe tomorrow it will be through a virtual-reality mind-controlled global system.
When we discuss ‘social networking’ the things that come to mind are websites like facebook, twitter or orkut. In most cases, one almost immediately associates with them the image of the internet addict: the social recluse who spends hours online, preferring to associate with two-dimensional facades rather than interact with the living, breathing versions outside in the fresh air. Before we begin sketching stereotypes and labelling these people as ‘retards’; social or otherwise; let us take a closer look at the real situation, at the benefits of this type of social networking.
Firstly, social networking sites enable one to interact with and maintain relations with a wider number of people than would otherwise be possible. One can keep in touch with acquaintances, distant relatives and friends with whom one is not on a position (logistical or otherwise) to interact with on a regular basis or via means of more intimate modes of communication viz. phone calls, sms or personal meetings. Secondly, they can serve as a means to find old friends or relations with whom contact has long been sporadic. This is especially useful for the members of the pre-internet generation. The existence of official Alumni Associations on such sites prove the effectiveness of this medium. Thirdly, for students, or even young working professionals; especially in the larger metropolitan cities; regular personal meetings are often infeasible due to busy schedules and the distances involved. Social networking is a boon in such cases.
It may also serve to increase social contact by serving as an easily accessible medium that can enable one to get to know people better in a cost-effective and potentially risk-free environment. Finally, social networking is not limited to sites like twitter or facebook alone, it includes sites like linkedin and glassdoor as well that serve as excellent forums to forge business contacts and gain second-hand experience and feedback about ones current and future workplace. In all the instances discussed above, social networking is serving its purpose: to increase proximity and connectivity between different sets of people. It is actually making us more social and inter-dependent.
Everything that serves any purpose can also be used another way. The misuse, abuse or overuse of anything; however beneficial or seemingly innocuous; will always have some negative effects associated with it. It is upon the discretion of the individual concerned how to utilize a particular resource or facility. While admittedly instances of people becoming ‘social retards’ after getting addicted to social networking sites are not uncommon, it will be both too extreme and too simplistic to condemn the activity itself and will rather be akin to banning substances like cough syrup or paint just because a certain section of the population engages in the abuse of the said substances. The average human being can and should be credited with responsibility for his or her own actions. Making sweeping generalizations will serve little purpose other than shifting the blame instead of addressing the cause.