In the car yesterday, I was listening to a track by my favourite band, Rush, which set me thinking about how personalised relationships operate in the connected world. The track in question was “Limelight”, a song which deals with issues around the difficulties of fame and the fact that “famous” people are often seen as public property by their fans. The lyrics, as with most of Rush’s songs were written by Neil Peart, who was immortalised in Jack Black’s film “School of Rock” as “the world’s greatest drummer”. Peart’s lyrics are one of the key reasons I like the band so much, some people think they are pretentious, I think they are often perceptive. “Limelight” is an early manifestation of Peart’s thoughts on the contradictions of him having chosen a career which has made him well-known and sought out, while being an intensely shy person who does not welcome intrusion into his private life. In recent years, Peart has developed a second career as a moderately successful travel writer (see http://www.neilpeart.net/), and his books have given him the opportunity to expound on these contradictions, as he eschews the rock star lifestyle by travelling between gigs with his close friends on a motorcycle, documenting the people and countryside as he goes. Even on stage, he hides behind his drum kit, observing individual audience members, and saving up thoughts about them for his journal.
One of Neil Peart’s complaints, referenced in “Limelight” and elsewhere in his writings, is that fans think they have an open invitation to intrude in the star’s life. And his books describe how he has often responded to the question “Are you Neil Peart”, with the response, “You, know people are always asking me that. I wonder if people ask him if he’s me”. The problem with these kinds of relationship is that they are one-way. The fan thinks (often mistakenly) that they know everything about the star, while the star knows nothing about the fan, but is expected to enter into an instant rapport with them, when accosted unexpectedly. As Peart says in “Limelight”; “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend”.
That latter line, in particular, led to think about the modern connected world and whether connectivity is changing the nature of such relationships. It could be that it’s different for “celebrities”, even the well-documented efforts of the likes of Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross to use tools such as Twitter to communicate with their audiences are unlikely to result in them getting to know everybody who wants to connect with them. But, for the rest of us, with a more limited range of contacts, perhaps social networking tools are indeed changing the way we interact. Twitter, for instance, has been described as the “Watercooler for people who work online”. There are those who deride the trivial chatter which goes on through the likes of Twitter, but for many people, myself included, the essential nuggets of professionally useful information which they derive through Twitter, are often all the more legitimate when coming from someone , whose likes and dislikes you know something about, although you may never have met them in the flesh, and with whom you may have exchanged some idle, Twitter-delivered, banter.
I have recently engaged in several discussions about the word “geek”, a former playground insult, which seems increasingly to have been reclaimed and made into a badge of honour. No longer is the geek the teenage boy sitting in his room refusing to come out until he’s finished that last bit of programming. These days, the geeks have the tools to communication in the modern world, and, as we all know, often the skills to become very succcessful in the modern economy.
Several outposts of the “old media” infrastructure have generated heat recently by attacking online social networks as damaging to personal relationships. Many of us feel this to be akin to the last thrashing of the dying dinosaurs. The reality of modern online social networking, is that it often enhances personal relationships. I have a number of examples of interactions through Twitter which have led to face-to-face meetings and the beginnings of mutually beneficial professional relationships, which would definitely not have happened without Twitter. On the other hand, brief initial face-to-face meetings have also subsequently led to a more substantial relationship through later online interactions.
I contend therefore, that the ability to get to know someone via an online social network, before ever meeting them face-to-face, is an immensely beneficial aspect of modern technologies. And, just maybe, it may allow us to break down barriers which prevent us from treating “a stranger as a long-awaited friend”.