Imagine a scenario in which you’re a single person at a bar and someone you don’t know comes up and talks to you. At some point in the conversation, you find out that this person approached you because he or she pulled up your Facebook profile on a smartphone and saw that you were single. Sounds creepy, right? But who knows, maybe I’m just being presumptuous. Who’s to say that one couldn’t meet a future spouse in such a situation?

This scenario may happen as a result of the launch of Facebook’s new Places feature on Aug. 18. If users choose to use this application, they can log onto Facebook from a smartphone and Facebook will broadcast their location. Users can also track their friends’ locations and pull up the profiles for other individuals who are broadcasting from the same location.

As social media expands and becomes more advanced, it forces us to reevaluate what we consider to be socially acceptable behavior. It’s often too easy to assume that these changes cause people to be less personal and more isolated. The first time a friend told me about the bar scenario mentioned above, my gut reaction was that such technology was obtrusive and unnecessary. I envisioned iPhones turning into human tracking devices analogous to the collars they use to track the wild deer in my neighborhood. However, I quickly came to realize that I was unnecessarily focusing my attention on the worst possible outcome of new technology.

Such responses are common when it comes to technology. Consider a Jul. 16 column in The New York Times from Bob Herbert entitled, “Tweet Less, Kiss More.” That title succinctly summarizes his argument. One of Herbert’s examples is an engagement party in which many of the guests were sending text messages instead of paying attention to the toasts. I’m not convinced cell phones are what cause people to not pay attention — if there were no smartphones, the same number of people still would probably have been twiddling their thumbs.

The media response to the launch of Places was similarly critical. Many news reports on the subject seemed geared toward concerned parents rather than those who will actually be using the feature. Several newspapers reported on the privacy issues surrounding Places. The Washington Post even provides instructions on how to turn it off.

An argument that resonates strongly with me is that each technological change brings positive and negative effects to our social lives and it’s hard to immediately predict what these effects will be. In the words of Slate blogger Farhad Manjoo, “(Places is) sure to affect your relationships in amazing and awful ways, most likely both.” By looking at some past technological changes, one can see how this statement rings true.

Let’s start with Facebook. Facebook is an easy way to keep tabs on friends you don’t see very often, share pictures and direct others to amusing things you find on the Internet. I don’t see it as a cop-out way of socializing. I see it as a way to share things that I wouldn’t always have time to do otherwise. But there are some strange social consequences. For instance, it’s common to pick up information on people you aren’t very close with. This can be an uncomfortable problem when you come in contact with such people later and don’t know how to react as they tell you about their life.

We can also look at texting. I was very skeptical of texting when it first came out. But there are situations when texting is more convenient than calling — if you have to ask the same question to six different people, or if you want to know about something small that doesn’t merit a full discussion. Then again, I hate getting into drawn-out text conversations when it would make more sense to simply talk on the phone.

I suspect that Places will have the same combination of positive and negative social effects. It might make it easier for singles to meet in public. It also might make it more difficult to casually lie to someone about your location, which can be useful. Whatever happens, there will likely be skeptics who see Places as yet another way technology is causing people to isolate themselves. But those who always assume the worst with technology should really embrace positive changes — even if it clashes with their idea of what is socially acceptable.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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