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Is Social Networking Making Us Dumber?

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It's a simple question, really. Between Facebook and MySpace, blogs and Tweets, are we getting dumber? Or are these social networking tools merely providing a platform to showcase our more unflattering traits? With Twitter, the erosion between thought and proclamation has thinned our delay of gratification to 140 characters. But -- as a user of said networking tools -- I'm interested in another question brought to mind by this phenomenon. Have we utterly forgotten our definition of privacy?

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I will spare you the do-I-really-care-to-see-a-picture-of-your-waffles grievance, or the must-we-all-know-that-you're-LOLing-about-your-cat's-expression gripe. I'm talking not about annoying posts, but about people's broadcasting information that will land them in (literal, in some cases) hot water. To whit, three girls working at a fast-food joint decided to have some after-hours fun. Donning bikinis, they hopped into the industrial-depth sinks to clean the dishes. An unusual if not unheard of act of teenage diversion. I certainly committed acts of equivalent idiocy in my high school years. The difference is, I didn't snap pictures and post them on MySpace. The girls were promptly busted and reprimanded.

Okay, you say, but getting fired from Flappy's Waffle House doesn't exactly constitute a major life setback. How about this bit of cheer from the Wall Street Journal? Seven percent of all accepted college applicants last year had their offers rescinded because of inappropriate Facebook pictures or entries involving sex, drugs, or alcohol. Often, these took the form of status updates bragging about how much partying was planned for campus the following year. Again, it's not the boasting that's alarming, it's the fact that these students don't realize that their boasting is public and can be accessed by a broad range of people. Think of those years and years of hard work and diligent study, down the toilet because a student felt a need to trumpet his beer-bong capabilities.

The NFL has gotten into the game as well, in sneaky fashion. Creating "ghost profiles" of busty women, team vetters "friend" potential recruits and draft picks. Once accepted, these invented women allow a team's administrators full access to a player's social networking site, where they can peruse entries and photos for clues to help them steer clear of the next Plaxico Burress or Michael Vick.

Even more serious examples are manifold. A Staten Island criminal court judge was transferred after updating his Facebook status and posting a courtroom photo -- from the bench. A prosecutor I know trawls social networking sites of the accused when building a case, in hopes of finding said defendants flashing gang signs. The Israeli army had to call off a raid earlier this year after a soldier posted classified details on his Facebook account. Posted cell phone videos have been used to prosecute street fighters and rioters -- even a teacher beating up a student. And criminals have been arrested for even more serious crimes after bragging about them on their social networking sites. Are they literally forgetting that this information is public? Or is the urge for instant celebrity, on however humble a scale, too alluring?

Evidence suggests that zealous posters actually lose sight of the fact that they are broadcasting to a public audience. The space between them and their MacBook cameras seems so safe, so intimate, that private admissions slip out like so many drunken confessions of love. Gary Small, M.D. suggests that brain pathways are actually being altered by our excessive use of technology:

While the brains of today's Digital Natives are wiring up for rapid-fire cyber searches, the neural circuits that control the more traditional learning methods are neglected and gradually diminished. The pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.

Is it a stretch to suggest that as people's capability for normal interaction atrophies, their judgment is weakened as well?

Given that I'm on Facebook and Twitter myself, I've witnessed firsthand people self-destructing, either by being excessively confessional or foolishly unedited in those instants before the "post" button is clicked. As a thriller writer, I find bizarre, illogical, and self-destructive behavior to be of great interest. Generally, it's only a matter of time before a particular fascination of mine seeps into a plot. So it's not surprising that after observing many "friends" and Twittermates melt down and misstep in their efforts to deliver private musings to their army of virtual followers, that I found myself playing around with a story about the dark side of this issue.

In They're Watching, I depict a struggling screenwriter who is guilty of wanting the limelight a little too badly. And in the crime-fiction tradition of careful-what-you-wish-for, he begins to receive ominous unmarked DVDs that hold footage of him going about his everyday life -- footage that grows increasingly invasive. It's a morality tale, I suppose, as much of crime fiction is, weighing the costs of what happens when we actually get the attention we thought we were seeking. And I suppose it's my answer to all those would-be MySpace stars who crave a big audience, only to wind up fired from jobs, rejected from colleges, or arrested.

At a point, one of my characters gives vent to his (and my) frustrations about how cheaply we've parted with our discretion.

There's no damn privacy anymore. It's like we all got used to it. Or we gave it away, bit by bit. Wiretapping laws. Citizen enemy combatants. Homeland Security looking up your nose. Not to mention all this reality shit. Girls Gone Wild. Crying politicians on YouTube. Spouses trash-talking on Dr. Phil. You can't even die in war anymore without every schmuck with a flat-screen watching the infrared footage. There's no... propriety. You used to have to be famous to be famous. But now? It's all real. It's all fake. What's the goddamned fascination with monitoring everything, putting an eye up to every peephole?

As a thriller writer, I'm guilty too, I suppose, of wanting to put my eye up to various peepholes, of shining a light in dark corners, of being the cat yielding to delicious curiosity. What I struggle to understand is the other side of the equation, the willingness of so many to install peepholes providing close ups into their private lives.

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