Thursday, February 27, 2014

Super Lonely Semi-True Internet Stories: The Debate Over Sociability and Social Media Continues

If you keep up with the pundits who make a professional study of social media, you’ll know that some of them (including William Powers, Sherry Turkle and Stephen Marche) argue that social media doesn’t always make us more social. Two years ago, in “Social Media's Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships,” Zeynep Tufekci called into question these claims.  And now again, in “The Social Internet: Frustrating,Enriching, but Not Lonely,” she revisits the issue:

Communications technologies are neither dehumanizing nor isolating when they provide social connectivity. When my phone beeps because my ninety-year-old grandmother in Istanbul is calling, it is anything but dehumanizing. When my high school classmates rally on Facebook to morally, physically, and, if necessary, financially support one of us during a major illness, it is anything but dehumanizing. On the contrary, without the Internet most of us would have disappeared from each other’s communities and lives. And it’s profoundly humanizing when people first meet online and convert those relationships to face-to-face friendships, as about one in five people in North America have done.

These points are well taken: in many and perhaps most situations, the new technologies of connectivity do enable sociability.   But then Tufekci goes on to conclude: "Conceptually, empirically, and, above all, ethically, we have an obligation to end the moral panic that the Internet is making us lonely and isolated."  Does this follow?  Should we stop worrying just because the internet isn't in general making us lonely?  Oddly, in a move that calls into question her own conclusion, Tufekci volunteers many situations in which the internet isn't catalyzing sociability:

…if the “snail mail” annual family bulletin listing the year’s trials and tribulations is now sent by e-mail, or if engagements and pregnancies are announced only on Facebook, Aunt Edna, who’s not online much, may never hear of them. No one means to exclude her, of course, but the new way to systematically contact everyone on a list excludes her because she’s not online.

And Edna, of course, is only one example of instances where our communication devices marginalize people rather than bring them together into a tighter social fold. 
When I drive down the highway and reach for my cell phone rather than paying attention to the road, I’m jeopardizing a particularly important community of attention that keeps me and my fellow drivers in the land of the living and the land of the social.  And when my cell inadvertently rings during a presentation, that too disrupts an important social space.  The cyberasocial (a demographic that Zeynep may herself have coined) are another group whose social prospects also suffer as the rest of us flock online. In raising these problems I’m not suggesting that social media is having an aggregate negative effect on human relationships.  I’m just saying that there are further refinements that we can make as we adapt to our new technologies and that we shouldn't become complacent just because the glass is half full.

Tufekci also suggests that when we celebrate face-to-face communication over online, it can “become another way for people with privilege to claim a form of cultural capital that is denied to others.”  To be sure elites worry about these things.  But the laments are hardly confined to them.  In Susan Matt’s history of homesickness in America, she found many American immigrants use Skype and other communication technologies to commune with families left behind.  But while those immigrants valued the connectivity that Skype offered, they volunteered that their ability to assuage homesickness through a phone call home paled in comparison to an actual physical visit home.  I’ll venture to say that Tufekci embodies these sentiments in her own life: she may call her grandma in Istanbul but she also flies there in person a couple of times a year (or at least her Twitter feed suggests as much).

For Tufekci, our present worries are a "moral panic" (and possibly another venue for repressing an under-class).   But to pundits who give more credence to these concerns, a better description is “deliberative adaptation.”  When we release technologies into the world it takes a while for us to figure out how to use them wisely.  And it also takes time to figure out the contexts in which to avoid their use.  We’ve bought cable subscriptions and data plans and smart phones because we know intrinsically that these technologies expand and enrich and sustain our social selves.  Why else (unless we’re simple dupes of social media marketing) would we be spending money on this stuff?  But just because on average they’re improving our social lives, doesn't mean that it’s time to stop learning how to use these devices to our best social advantage.  Pace Tufekci’s protestations, that inquiry is still a worthwhile form of deliberation to be engaging in.