Social Networks: Good or Bad?

I've been doing quite a bit of reading about social networks in preparation for the 2012 edition of my Brandeis University Course, "Web and Social Applications". This morning I was preparing lecture notes for "Current Issues In Social Networks". Here are some good current links I have been able to find:

I have just come from a family reunion where there were people pulling out iPhones at 'inappropriate times' and other people debating what has happened to the art of conversation now that we are all Facebooking all the time. (Guilty as charged!) 
 
So between the two I have spent some time thinking about this phenomenon and whether social networks and mobile phones together are a new kind of addictive behavior which is doing real damage to social interactions (that is, human to human, face to face.)
 
Or on the other hand, are they just an evolution of interaction and communication and anyone who doesn't see it as an equally valid way of interacting must be a fuddy duddy.  Good question! And I don't really know the answer, not even what I myself think about it.
 
But this article by Zaynep Tufekci contains what for me is a profound insight or claim:
 
 "Finally, I've previously argued that some people may be "cyberasocial," that is, they are unable or unwilling to invoke a sense of social presence through mediated communication, somewhat similar to the way we invoke language -- a fundamentally oral form -- through reading, which is a hack in our brain. I suspect such people may well be at a major disadvantage similar to the way people who could not or would not talk on the telephone would be in late 20th century." (from Social Media's Small Positive Role in Human Relationships)

In other words, I can imagine that when writing was 'invented' and more importantly I suppose, when writing was becoming accessible to everyone, that there were those who were bemoaning the loss of story telling and oral history.

I can imagine that when the telephone started becoming popular (as indicated in the quote above) there were those bemoaning that we no longer had to visit together by the fireplace but could just make a phone call.

I myself can remember people who refused to have an answering machine because they wanted to talk, or refused to leave a message because it was too impersonal.

But none of those foretold the end of civilization. They were evolutions which enriched and eventually became a commonplace aspect of the way we interact.

I think that's a great insight: that being in community or sharing relationships through social media - to our Facebook friends or mailing lists or twitter or even sharing photos in Instagram may seem to be taking time away from our spending 'quality time' together.

But perhaps it's just the next evolution of sharing and relationships - not to displace what came before but adding a new dimension and a new valuable dimension to inter-personal relationships.