Saul Kaplan: Phone-a-Friend

I was amused to learn that the show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ is doing away with the phone-a-friend lifeline.   There was Meredith Vieira with her big smile and syrupy voice explaining that the time had come to take away the lifeline that has been a staple since the beginning of the show because too many friends were using the internet (doing Google searches) to help the contestants.  No kidding.  Did the show’s producers just figure that out?  It was plain to see the progression from the early years of the show when contestants would call wicked smart people to today when they just call people that are really fast at doing on-line searches. What’s next, “ask the audience” to check their iPhones at the door of the studio?  Let’s face it lifelines are enabled by the web.  Should we just get used to it or is there something more important than a game show going on here reflecting on the state of human interaction.

This comes as no surprise to anyone with a teenage daughter.  When is the last time you shouted to your teenager, Get off of that phone you have been talking for an hour?  It is far more likely that you have said, get off of that computer and do your homework or no text messages during dinner.  It is obvious that phone-a-friend has been replaced with text messaging and Facebook walls.  Phone conversations have been replaced with an always-on lifeline connecting friends in real time.  Answers, information, advice, entertainment, and connections are all available 24/7.  Conversations are now just fragments, short poorly spelled text messages, or 140 character epithets.

Saul KaplanIs the loss of phone-a-friend necessarily a bad thing?  Maybe new web-enabled lifelines are expanding our universe of possible friends and opening up new opportunities for deep engagement.  I think that may be true but there are serious questions that need to be asked about real human engagement.  I worry that the web and social media platforms have become the driver more than the enabler.  Are we “friending” people because they are web-savy, spending a lot of time on social media sites, and quick to return our text messages?  Or are we “friending” smart, interesting, caring people that leverage the web to enable connections and who will be there when you need them the most?  Will these connections stand up to the crises that we all will face when personal engagement and support is critical?  Is “friending” even the same thing as being a friend?  I wonder if we have become so focused on our follower or friend counts on-line that we are forgetting what true friendship is really about.

Seems to me that lifelines are more about the people at the other end of the line than about a connection to the web. Technology is a great enabler that can help us to be better friends but it is not a replacement for the hard work of being a good friend.  There will be times in all of our lives when we will need to say, I would like to use a lifeline. If it is all right with you I would like to hold on to my phone-a-friend.


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