A friend recently introduced me to the GPS app Waze, which promises—warning: I will likely botch the lingo—a crowdsourcing solution to traffic: “Nothing can beat real people working together. Imagine 30 million drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic. . . .” Waze users report traffic incidents and driving conditions in exchange for points. I can’t tell what these points are actually good for—probably something that exceeds my understanding—so the reports seem close to altruistic activity. The app is addicting, invaluable and troubling. It leaves one with the impression of participating in a community that in fact does not exist, of committing acts of altruism that actually require no sacrifice and of making connections that are in reality hollow. Dr. Nisbet, please call your office.
To be sure, one ought not extrapolate more of a message from a navigation app than is actually there, and none of this is a knock on Waze as all it promises to be: a better means of navigation. But Waze is indicative of the false sense of community that social networks can induce: one that is either anonymous, impersonal or, at best, arms-length. Such relationships do not involve the same sorts of accommodations and complications that Claes Ryn reminds us sustained, personal, face-to-face interactions require. Social networks instead enable connections on the individual’s terms, at times and places of his or her choosing.