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Verner column: Social media deserve cold shoulder

“It’s just plain evil,” the man on the phone is saying. “Evil, pure and simple. And somebody needs to put a stop to it.”
The man does not want his last name used. In fact, he has stopped using it himself, in an admirable effort to simplify his life, conserve valuable resources and shrug off the encumbrance of unnecessary vowels and consonants. We will refer to him simply as “Clyde,” or “the artist formerly and currently known as Clyde.”
Along with being an artist, Clyde serves as something of Salisbury’s version of the Delphic oracle of ancient Greece, delivering warnings of impending doom if we don’t change our foolish ways. In the past, he has warned of many threats to our existence, such as DOT highway projects, historic district renovation rules and city of Salisbury water rates. We haven’t discussed the city’s new fiber-optic project, but I suspect Clyde views it with much the same dread as Hercules contemplating the many-headed Hydra. Cut off one slithering cable, and 10 more are likely to sprout in its place.
Today, Clyde wants to talk about the evils of the Internet ó or, more specifically, the evils of Google, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Yahoo, Flickr, hackers, trackers, trolls, phishermen and the parasitic swarms of online marketers who now roam cyberspace much as cut-throat pirates did in the days of Blackbeard. While others are worried about creeping socialism, Clyde is concerned about the creeping intrusion of electronic communications into every aspect of our lives. It is a concern I share.
“Somebody gets their name and picture in the Salisbury Post,” Clyde says, “and the next thing you know, it shows up on a Web site in Berzerkistan and has gotten 20 million hits on Google.”
Like Clyde, I’m uncomfortable with the loss of privacy and what it means. What it means is that personal information about me ó and you ó is floating around in cyberspace at this moment, readily available to an emotionally distressed person with violent tendencies and access to instruments of destruction, such as a religious fanatic or a golfer’s wife. Internet marketers say they are simply “tracking” people on their sojourns in cyberspace, but what passes for “tracking” in virtual reality sounds suspiciously like “stalking” in the steadily diminishing boundaries of what we now quaintly call the “real world.”
These days, the buzz is all about “social media” ó the catch-all phrase that covers everything from the creaky, old-school e-mail that still trickles through the dial-up connection on my desktop PC to the tweets and twitters that perpetually emanate from handheld wireless digital devices as their users deliver minute-by-minute updates on their lives. (Does anyone ever send out a really useful tweet, like, “overdid it on the cheese dip and refried beans; keep your distance” or “unsightly skin rash continues to spread; am now part of quarantined CDC study group” ?)
According to one report, adults now spend more than three hours a day interacting with computer screens. Even if you factor in time spent on worthwhile online activities, like fantasy football leagues and Solitaire, that’s still an alarming statistic. Clearly, this “social media” thing has gotten out of hand.
What the world needs, Clyde and I agree, is the development of “anti-social media.” I’m not sure what form “anti-social media” would take. For starters, perhaps we should acknowledge only communications that come via Western Union or arrive through the mail, handwritten on delicately aged vellum using quill pens. Or perhaps we should discard our Blackberries and cellphones and demand that AT&T bring back the old “party line,” in which land-line phone users could eavesdrop on one another’s conversations. Now that was interesting “social media.”
Apparently, others are thinking along the same lines. Striking a sharp blow against the metastatic growth of social networking, a new online site ó www.seppukoo.com ó allows Facebook users to commit ritual self-destruction in the virtual world by deactivating their accounts. Seppukoo (named after the samurai act of ritual suicide) then erects a “Rest in Peace” memorial page on its site and forwards the page to all your Facebook friends, who then apparently can become Facebook mourners. By the time you read this, an entrepreneurial online marketer will probably be offering the delivery of virtual floral arrangements in honor of the digitally departed.
Those who live by the social-networking sword die by the social-networking sword? Soon we may be googling the ghosts of our former selves. Virtual annihilation is certainly an interesting concept. Clyde and I hope it catches on.
– – –
Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post. If you simply must send him an e-mail, it’s cverner@salisburypost.com.

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