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Around the time Plugged In was born, my then-college boyfriend asked if I had "electronic mail." I remember raising an eyebrow and asking, "What is it, and where do you put it?" He patiently explained this strange new technology, but he might as well have been speaking Farsi. Most people didn't understand it back then.

Oh, how times have changed.

By the mid 1990s, e-mail was an indispensable part of our lives, in the office and out. But it has gradually grown passé. Now e-mail's sugared-up grandchild, social networking, is the new Internet juggernaut—especially the public beehive known as Facebook. Facebook's influence is so widespread that if it were a country, it would be the third largest on earth, with more than 500 million citizens worldwide. In the scramble to hop on the social media bandwagon, however, let's not lose sight of the "pre-Facebook" age, when people survived quite nicely without status updates ("I'm eating a donut") and FarmVille. I frequently wonder just how all of this is impacting us.

Some sociologists say the global popularity of social media is the biggest cultural shift since the Industrial Revolution. A recent study of 18- to 34-year-old women found that 57 percent talk to people online more than they talk to people face-to-face. Such research, along with personal observations, is likely what prompted Wilson Quarterly contributor Daniel Akst to write, "Friends are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a 'lite' alternative to the caloric meshugas of family life."

The "lite" part bothers me. And the notion of flimsy friendships through social media seems counterintuitive, since users routinely share things that would have been considered intensely private 20 years ago. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said of networking, "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

With that in mind, has social networking advanced our culture or set us back? Certainly both to various extents. But as people share anything and everything with no one in particular (hoping to be noticed in the process), it can't help but cause static that hinders us, relationally. Jack White of the rock band The White Stripes told Blender magazine, "In this day and age, every band wants to say, 'Come look at what we do, all the time. You wanna see me in my underwear? You wanna film me while I'm sleeping?' America has traded culture for entertainment and technology. How can you ever come back from that?"

That's a good question. And since social media is fundamentally changing how our world thinks and communicates, it's worth taking a private look at how we use it … so that it doesn't use us.

You'll find this article and other 20th anniversary reflections—including quotes, letters, statistics, a timeline, trivia and more—in our special online flipbook. Click here to check it out!

Published October 2010