social anxiety and social software

For various reasons, I’ve been trying out a few new social networks lately, and I plan, gradually, to add a few more.

This past weekend, I went down to Denver to a wedding. The bride is an old, old friend–we’ve known each other since first grade, though we haven’t been in touch regularly in several years. The only people I knew at the wedding were the bride and her parents. One woman there remembered the column I wrote for an independent weekly newspaper in Iowa City, and a couple of people looked vaguely familiar, like I might have met them around campus in the late ’90s.

I suffer from a certain amount of free-floating anxiety, some of which attaches itself to social situations when it has the chance. One of the reasons I live in such a small and out of the way place is that in a place as small as this one with as many eccentric people as this place has, my own eccentricity and awkwardness don’t stand out very much. Going to a wedding where you have to dress nicely and converse with people about potentially mine-field-laden topics such as What You Do for a Living and the State of Your Social Life is not, therefore, generally my idea of a good time. I put myself in these situations, though, because I don’t want to lose the ability to function in them at all, just as I don’t want to lose completely my knack for driving in the city.

A lot of people have social anxiety of some sort, but lately I’ve been thinking about the ways that sort of anxiety might translate to social software, where you have both friends and “friends,” where you can poke someone but no one will tell you what doing so means, and where, in some cases, people are not who they seem.

When Meredith and Sarah wrote awhile back about their disliking of the rush of “friends” one gets when one joins a new social network, and how that makes it hard to use the network with your actual friends, I saw their point, but then I immediately began to worry. Had I become “friends” with too many people? Were these people adding me back out of obligation or out of interest? When I tried a new site out, was I a librarian trying to learn more about the tools her patron uses, or was I Laura, trying to make more friends, not just more “friends?”

Very few of my actual, non-librarian friends have much of a presence online. There are a smattering of Flickr accounts, and recently there’s been a small rash of Facebook accounts, and there are a couple of blogs. I know of a few LiveJournals and MySpace accounts, but as I’m not on either of those networks (yet), I don’t really keep up with them. Everyone I follow in Twitter is a librarian. Twitter is fabulous that way, as is the LSW Meebo Room–or rather, it’s fabulous if you’re a library person with an interest in the internet. I’m sure to many people–even many librarians–the conversations we have there would sound very much like the biblioblogger sounds to the local branch librarian. If you were hoping to use Twitter to keep up with your college friends, it would be maddening.

Though I didn’t know anyone else at the wedding I went to, I had probably known the bride longer than anyone there other than her family. But she and I haven’t been in touch in a few years, and though I can remember playing with her in the outdoor fireplace at her house in grade school and smuggling rated R movies into the house to watch when we were in high school (and were not, by her parents’ dictate, supposed to be watching such things), I don’t know much about her day to day life in the past few years. On the way down to Denver, I stopped overnight in Laramie and got to meet Kaijsa, and the day after the wedding, Steve Lawson drove up from Colorado Springs and we had lunch. I had never met either of them, but I knew all sorts of things about both of them quite well. I’d seen Kaijsa’s shoes and Steve’s son’s model rockets. In some odd way, I know some of my “imaginary” friends better than some of my oldest “real” friends.

There’s nothing new about the different ways in which we know our new friends verusus our old friends, but there is, perhaps, an added dimension–the ways we know our friends and our “friends,” and how sometimes people morph from one to the other.

My various online presences are currently listed in the sidebar of this blog under “meta laura.” Please feel free to add me as a “friend” or a friend, or both.

6 thoughts on “social anxiety and social software”

  1. It’s also worth noting that Hermit Greg is one of the few “imaginary” friends I have who started out as a “real” one.

  2. I very much appreciate this post. I “follow” a lot of people on the web in various ways, but very rarely convince myself that any of them are really looking for me as a friend or even a “friend.” If you are looking, I’ll likely be SMKVT, diffidently present but quiet.

  3. @hermit greg–yes, but you’re one of my few real friends with any kind of online presence, which does create an odd sort of overlap.

    @Sheila–you have a blog! Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to what you have to say, diffident or not.

  4. Laura, thanks for these thoughts. I think friendship on the Internet is a fascinating topic. In some ways it is not much different having web friends as land-based friends. You find people with like interests, communicate, treat each other with interest and respect, and sometime drift apart. Some people with who you try to strike up a relationship will not have time. Perhaps they are already committed to some many relationships. Some people always find time for someone new. The advantage of the Internet is spacial and time limits are stretched. People who have known all the same old people in their neighborhood or rural community, never having anyone with which to share some select interests, can then find someone new online. I see few downsides to web friends.

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