In defence of social networking

It’s not hard to find articles about social networking these days – whether it’s facebook or grindr or aki-aki everyone is talking about the effects that technology is having on our social lives.
But in line with the general paradigm that news these days has, by definition, to be bad news, you won’t find anyone saying anything very positive.
According to the media, dating sites are turning our teenagers into social recluses, facebook is producing an ADHD generation that thinks that sharing the fact that they are stirring their cuppa is interesting, and of course, gay men are using technology as simply one more way to see their peers as nothing more than disposable product.
Now all of this may be true, but it is not the whole truth: you can use a hammer to smash a skull or to build a house and technology is just a tool.

As a writer, my life is pretty isolated. By definition, I have to spend six months a year – at least – shut in a room on my own.
And being single, at the end of the day, I don’t have anyone to share my progress with (my cats don’t seem that interested). And frankly, Facebook has been my saviour.
Thanks to Facebook I now know a number of other writers I would never have had the chance to meet, and again, thanks to Facebook we have our own little encouragement club. When we’re sitting in our offices churning out the tens of thousands of words required to make a novel, we post progress scores – “30,000 words! Yoo-hoo”, and encourage and cajole each other when we get stuck. When we can’t find a word we post up a question. When we wonder if something is just a little too vulgar we post it up for discussion. Facebook has put me in touch with lots of my readers too and provided a window that enables us to peep in on each others lives that is truly enriching.
There is no way to write in a room full of people, but writing in a room full of virtual people you can switch on and switch off at will is about as close to heaven as a writer will ever find.
Through Facebook I have met writers, readers, agents, painters and photographers. I have been invited to events I would never even have heard about otherwise.
Everyone is talking about privacy these days, and of course Facebook is bad for your privacy. It’s social networking and any kind of networking that is good for your social life is going to be bad for your privacy.
If you want to meet people and share ideas then spend some time on Facebook and then go out and meet them. And if privacy is what you’re after then go sit in a room somewhere and shut the curtains.

And then there’s dating. The truth of the matter is that internet isn’t a particularly good way of meeting a life partner. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but virtually anyone who has tried internet dating will tell you the same thing, that virtual dating produces only virtual romance. If you want real love, you need at some point to go out into the real world and meet real people.
I think that the technological change that the internet implied happened so fast that we gay men were thrown for a while. Faced with this sudden apparition of a medium filled with men who seemed better looking and funnier and richer and better dressed than the actual people around us, a lot of gay men became dazzled for a few years. But people and cultures evolve, and I am noticing that dating culture is shifting to use the technology in a way that suits us far better now. Realising that internet profiles are just advertising, no longer do internet contacts spend endless weeks chatting on gaydar or gayromeo. These days a few messages suffice, and then one party or the other will suggest meeting up.
The sexaholics out there will suggest meeting in their bed, and the more cerebral amongst us will suggest a cup of coffee or a pint. Even grindr – an apparent instant shagging shop that lists men in order of how many meters they are away from you – can be used as a knocking shop or as an introduction agency. I have made a number of friends through grindr and have slept with precisely none of them. Thanks to grindr, when I do go out to a local bar I now bump into people I can chat to.
When properly used, technology acts in exactly the way it should – as an introduction agency that bridges class and colour and creed and even distance.
Talk to a few gay men around you and you will find that we are all making new friendships all over the world. Gay men throughout the world are talking to each other, and then going to visit their new found friends – being put-up and shown around by people they didn’t know and would never have met otherwise. I myself just got back from a brilliant weekend in Brussels where I was shown around by a lovely guy I had met online. (He has a great B&B by the way so if you’re ever in Brussels…).
I would never have visited Brussels otherwise, and to have missed such a beautiful friendly city because of ignorance would have been a terrible shame. And despite the preconception that we are immoral shagging machines, a lot of these cultural exchanges are happening entirely independent of exchanges that involve bodily fluids.

A hundred years ago neighbouring countries could go to war for the simple reason that their citizens could be “informed” that their neighbours were monsters who needed to be killed. Even twenty years ago a gay man living under an oppressive regime could believe in his isolation that he was a freak and that society’s condemnation of his freakery was just and normal.
Now thanks to much-maligned social networking and even-more-maligned cheap air travel, we are building webs of friendship and cultural exchange that bridge class and country, sexual orientation and political leaning. That can only be good for world peace, and it can only be good for gay rights and human rights in general.
So next time you hear some journalist banging on about social networking, just remember that their definition of news – bad news – doesn’t have to be yours. Remember that technology is a tool. Use it to your advantage. Ignore those who use it destructively. And enjoy this incredible breadth of cultural exchange that no previous generation could ever have imagined. Thanks to the internet, the world truly is our oyster.

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