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Summary:

Some critics have raised the question of whether Facebook and Twitter are making us more lonely and disconnected from one another. But the Web and social media are just tools: They can be used to create connections or to create distance, just like any other technology.

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We have seen a rash of essays and articles in the mainstream press recently that take a somewhat scare-mongering tone toward social networks and digital communication of various kinds: a piece in the Atlantic raised the question of whether Facebook is making us lonely, and a New York Times op-ed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle a few days ago argues that all the texting and social-media usage we’re engaging in is bad for us as a society, because it is preventing us from having “real” conversations and connecting with other human beings. But is this a real problem or just another example of how new technologies often get blamed for behavior that existed long before they were invented?

The crux of Turkle’s argument is that while text messaging, Facebook status updates and Twitter messages may make us feel as though we are connected to our friends and family in small ways, these “sips” of online connectivity don’t add up to much. It’s similar to the case she made in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, in which she talked about how social networks like Facebook are actually keeping us at a distance from one another, instead of helping to connect us. As she puts it in her NYT piece:

We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

But is that really true? There’s no question that a Facebook or Twitter chat can’t substitute for a face-to-face conversation with someone you care about. But is anyone really saying it should? It feels as though Turkle is proposing a false dichotomy, as though all the online communication we engage in somehow takes the place of “real-world” conversation. It’s like an updated version of the old image of young people sitting alone in their basements playing video games instead of going out to meet their friends in the “real” world. (Susannah Fox has a nice roundup of some reactions to Turkle’s piece.)

Those who are social online tend to be social offline

This argument has a number of flaws, however, including the fact that research shows people — particularly young Internet users — who are more social in their use of online networks and tools are also more social in the offline world. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written about this false dichotomy many times, including during an exchange with former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who echoed Turkle’s fear that online connections are a pale imitation of “real” human connections. Tufekci argues the online world and the so-called real world are almost indistinguishable now, and in many cases they tend to support each other rather than the opposite.

In his recent piece in the Atlantic, author Stephen Marche asked whether Facebook was making us more lonely instead of less, and ultimately he seemed to come down on the “more lonely” side of the equation, saying:

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

As poetic as that sounds, however, it simply doesn’t appear to be the case. Even the “expert on loneliness” who is cited by Marche in the Atlantic piece doesn’t agree we are becoming lonelier, and there’s no real evidence to suggest Facebook is helping or hurting in that regard. As with Turkle’s analysis, Marche seems convinced that social networking, text messaging or various other forms of online connection are replacing real communication between people, but at least in my experience — and also in the research of others such as Tufekci — that isn’t really what’s happening at all.

Online connections can just as easily spark offline connections

If anything, online connections tend to spark or promote real-world connections. I have met dozens and possibly even hundreds of people I wouldn’t know except for Twitter, had spontaneous coffee meetings thanks to Foursquare check-ins, and made countless other connections between the online and offline world. Does everyone do this? Of course not. I’m sure there are people who become more alone or more lonely as they use the Internet, just as there are lonely people who watch a lot of late-night television. But that doesn’t mean television causes loneliness.

As with any kind of activity, too much of it can be harmful to your health — but that goes for plenty of “real” world activities as well. Alexandra Samuel, the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, wrote in a response to Turkle that:

[W]orrying about kids who choose to live online is as misplaced as worrying about seniors who choose to live offline. It’s the result of looking at an emergent digital lifestyle through a generational prism, one that assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.

To me, this feels very much like the debate that was swirling around the Web in 2010 about whether the Internet was making us stupid — a theory advanced in part by author Nick Carr in his book The Shallows. As several people, including media theorist Clay Shirky and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out, the Internet doesn’t really do anything to us, apart from reinforcing habits or behavior patterns that we may already have. Can the Internet be used in ways that make us stupider, or at least make us appear that way? Sure it can. And so can virtually every other invention mankind has come up with since the wheel.

Pinker points out that virtually every technological development related to media, from newspapers and paperbacks to television and the Internet gets demonized at some point as people try to pin the blame for human nature on some external force. But in each case, it’s how we choose to use these new tools that matters, and that is something we all have in our power to change, for the better as well as for the worse.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jinterwas and Rufino

  1. Zeynep Tufekci Monday, April 23, 2012

    Hi Mathew — I wouldn’t say online and offline are “indistinguishable” but they are integrated. Or augmented to use another terminology. In fact, online and offline do have quite different properties–and that is pretty important and that is what’s causing all sorts of disruption. (A little more of the argument here: http://technosociology.org/?p=747 ) Cheers! Zeynep

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    1. Yes, integrated is a much better word for what I meant — thank you. They aren’t the same thing, of course, but to assume that either one is universally good or bad seems… well, dumb. Thanks for the comment, and for the link.

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  2. i hate this airline ! Monday, April 23, 2012

    The analogy from the Atlantic puts it into perspective: If you use Facebook to organize a soccer game with friends – cool. If you use Facebook instead of playing soccer with your friends – not cool.

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  3. Emily Thynne Monday, April 23, 2012

    The analogy from the Atlantic puts it into perspective: If you use Facebook to organize a soccer game with friends – cool. If you use Facebook instead of playing soccer with your friends – not cool.

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  4. Ryan Steiner Monday, April 23, 2012

    I remember an article about Twitter when it first debuted a few years back. The author described Twitter as ‘social periphery,’ and keeping that in mind has helped me keep a healthy perspective on what social networking can be (I think).

    There seems to be a tendency (that I don’t understand) to assume that any new form of communication or social interaction will render more traditional modes obsolete. At first I chalked it up to a fear of progress, but now I think it is more likely a fear of waking up one day and not being able to communicate with anyone. Without a sense of balance between new and traditional forms of communication, I can understand how that would lead someone to fear for future generations.

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  5. Dave Trautman Monday, April 23, 2012

    Oh no you didn’t just diss Sherry Turkle?

    Oh dear. Sherry’s research reaches back decades into the emergence of technologies and computers and their relationships with people. Her most recent book is only one small part of the larger question of what computers are ‘doing’ to us.

    And if you haven’t read what McLuhan was saying about this in the 70’s (long before mobility and personal computing) then you might not be qualified to comment.

    I might disagree with some of the people you’ve included in the article but nothing I’ve read from any of them seems to dispute (in the way you suggest) the central theme of inter-personal relationships.

    People need other people to be civilized. They need to be in direct contact for people to be socialized. And if you think these values can be subsumed or substituted for with other dazzling means of exchanging utterances then you haven’t read what Jaron Lanier has to say about it all in his recent manifesto “You are not a gadget”.

    Over simplifying human relationships and discounting the value of actual human contact is like suggesting no one will have any psychological problems traveling to Mars. The brightest minds are aware of the implications. But simplistic explanations will get you nowhere.

    Communication is only but one human activity in which our entire society is organized. There are a host of other developmental and civilizing activities which we require to live a healthy life. And many of these cannot be turned into bytes.

    Cheers,
    Dave

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    1. Thanks, Dave — I’m well aware of Sherry Turkle’s research, which I have been following for at least a decade or so now. Whether I am qualified to disagree with her or not, I agree with you that inter-personal relationships are important — I am not the one who is suggesting they can be substituted for or subsumed. That’s what Turkle seems to be basing her argument on, but no one (including me) appears to be claiming that they can. It’s a straw man.

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      1. With all due respect, it is unfortunate that you didn’t choose to delve more deeply into Turkle’s book, which is much more nuanced. The NYT piece is less nuanced, I am assuming, due to word limits. But I think you are over reading the blame on tech. When she says, “Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be,” I read the emphasis on people who use tech, not on the tech itself. She’s more nuanced in the piece than you give credit.

        There’s also a lot of research behind her work, which you don’t acknowledge. Yet you note that authors you agree with have research to back up their claims.

        Perhaps a bit of straw man on both sides of the blog?

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  6. “it’s how we choose to use these tools that matters” is true, but also the reason this topic is important.

    Generally governments do make choices for people to ensure that society moves forward or is at least stable. Whilst that may not aleays work, we cant’t live without it. For instance, someone isn’t allowed to threaten me with a gun (a tool) so I give them money.

    It’s hard to say what tools create a ‘net’ negative impact on society, but suggesting that all people will always use them for the greater good is tenuous.

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  7. Saw this in another article. The problem with the dichotomy of real vs. online world is that it assumes all real world actions are authentic honest. No elevator talk? No acting different around certain groups? No small talk? Come on nowwww. False narrative abound in that construct

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  8. The internet doesn’t change fundamental human behaviours eh? Acccording to this writer and Pinker, this is the case. I can only assume then that neither Pinker or this writer have ever been internet dating. Having 100 dates in a year and constant messaging and texting associated with it, is a brand new behaviour.

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