The problem, of course, is that we aren't taught to network with each other. Our parents outsource our networking to teachers, and our teachers just try and ensure that none of us choke to death on an eraser on their watch.
Social networking, ironically, encourages the same form of isolation. Facebook, for all its might, is possibly the single most damaging social networking tool I know: yes it will help you find your long-lost friend and that aunty who will like your pictures, but how will it help you find people who will challenge your ideas, people who need you in their lives, people you can fall in love with?
Facebook is fantastic for keeping touch with your existing social circles, but it fails spectacularly when it comes to meeting new people, or having real-time debates. Twitter is marginally better, except who uses Twitter anymore except for children and people in the Middle East who're organising rallies all the time (apparently)?
By an anachronistic stroke of luck, I discovered real social networking online in 2008, in the form of Internet Relay Chat (that's a whole separate story for another day). Even then, it was abundantly clear that most of the people left on IRC (and there weren't many) were in their late thirties and forties, and remembered it from its heyday in the '90s ... at which time I was in my teens, and my family didn't have a PC in the house, never mind a 56k dial-up modem.
IRC, for anybody not familiar, is moderately complex to use by modern 'point and click' standards, but the principle is dead simple: users connect to chatrooms that are hosted on IRC servers, and those servers record and send plain text chat messages (both public and personal) instead of websites. It's real-time, and although your 'client' (the programme you use to access the IRC server) might save all the chat messages in text logs, nobody really reads those: just like real life, you're either there and participating in the conversation, or the moment is gone and ancient history.
The magic, then, is two-fold: 1) You immediately get access to a pool of human beings connected to the same chatroom as you, from around the country or around the world (depending on the type of server you're on); and 2) The ball is entirely in your court what you SAY to these individuals, and how you react to them.
The reason why I am STILL going back onto IRC in the year of our lord 2018 is precisely the same as it was ten years ago: there's just nothing like the possibility of having actual conversations (both group conversations and one-on-one) with people you'd most likely pass on the street and never share more than a momentary glance with otherwise.
While society seems to increasingly isolate us into our individual worlds of cellphone screens and media consumption (TV, movies and staring blankly at other people living their lives on YouTube); IRC forces us to connect. If nobody says anything, then they'd just be sitting there staring at a blank screen.
And so people DO speak up. Social barriers dissolve. And (if you're lucky) real connections are formed.
I won't lie to you and say that all debate on IRC is highly intellectual. I won't even lie to you and claim that most of it is emotionally uplifting. The vast majority of it is pretty much the kind of small-talk you'll hear with a bunch of strangers in a bar, only nobody's drunk (well some are) and they're all listening to their own music.
Like anything else in life, however, it becomes what you make of it. I've found repeatedly that it's an amazing icebreaker ... just milling around in chat until you find somebody whose chat style gels with yours, and you continue the conversation in private. Before you know it, you've made a friend you wouldn't have imagined you'd ever have: maybe somebody 15 years older than you, maybe somebody living 1 200km away, maybe somebody with some wildly different views than yours, but ... a real, living human being, and you're not just shouting at each other in a bar but having actual conversations.
Again, I feel it's important to stress that IRC isn't this magical place where unicorns live. It's just a blank screen, and a very loosely moderated one at that (although most rooms will have admin teams who will try keep conversation just this side of an outright fistfight) ... and because all the input comes from humans, a lot of that input is filled with anguish, anger, petty frustration, egotistical-driven grandstanding, or wild jealousy.
And love. Real, unadulterated, knock me over a feather, how is this even possible, love.
I met my first girlfriend on IRC, on a general 'chat' channel. I met my wife on IRC, on a trivia channel of all things (where a computer programme asks general knowledge questions and the people in the room try to answer correctly before anybody else). My theory is that it doesn't matter where people who have a strong connection meet, that connection will jump across distance and mediums like an electric spark jumping between two wires.
That doesn't mean I'm advocating IRC for lonely hearts. For a lot of the reasons mentioned, it's actually a spectacularly bad place for that: it is filled with groups of jaded people tired of being endlessly flirted with, and other groups of people who just endlessly flirt out of habit rather than desire. Somewhere in the middle are the normal, everyday people ... and talking to them might help you see problems in new lights; feel better about your shitty life; or just laugh when everything else is bringing you down.
And so IRC for me is caught in this weird twilight state: it is a dying technology platform (with a very low-grade form of cancer given its longevity), and yet it also contains unadulterated human connection that is found absolutely nowhere else in our always-on, always-consuming (and hardly ever publishing) world.
Personally I'd love to see IRC receive better marketing, so more people are even aware of it. Maybe what it needs is a transition of its core tenets to a new technology platform (Virtual Reality-based chatrooms already show all the benefits of IRC with additional body language and physical interactions not possible on text-based IRC). Heck, if there's a passion project I'd ever love to attempt, it would be to reignite social networking on a mass scale using an IRC-type platform to encourage people to truly connect with each other.
If you haven't experimented with IRC, there are so many gateway drugs. The easiest way of getting on is simply via your website browser, using platforms like www.chat27.co.za (South African) or www.dal.net (international server). Pick a username, connect to a channel, and plunge in (just type "/list >15" to get a list of chatrooms with more than 15 people connected to it at that time). Once you get hooked, you simply download your very own dedicated IRC client like www.mirc.com ... and the rest is history.
If there's one parting thought here, it is this: gaining confidence in online chat is a crucial life skill that translates perfectly into the real world. How do you start a conversation? How do you resolve conflict? How do you keep stringing together words in a way that somebody else will actually want to read them? What do you have to give to the world, and what do you want in return?