On the 1st of June this year a very popular Singaporean blogger tweeted the following about his daughter:
Within minutes this tweet was shared on Twitter and Facebook as well, picked up by direct followers and passed on to their followers. More information came in later tweets: a photograph of the little girl, where she had last been seen, and finally, the glad tidings that she had been found. The incident made the national news, because the blogger, who goes by the online moniker “mrbrown” even though his real identity is not a secret, is extremely popular. But it was not the fact that a well-known personality had been in trouble that made the item newsworthy. What made it front-page news was the scale of the search and the phenomenon of the entire online community in this highly wired little city state being mobilised in a labour of love via their smartphones and the networks they enabled. Mrbrown may have had some very anxious moments, but that he had a nation of well-wishers on his side was a source of hope and comfort.
There is no dearth of stories like this. Against rising Internet and mobile phone penetration rates worldwide, social media has come to represent empowerment and democratisation in many fields of social life – education, commerce, the arts and even politics, to name just a few. Facebook and Twitter in particular have risen in prominence, with the former hitting 900 million users and the latter crossing 465 million users worldwide. Events like the Arab Spring in the Middle East, the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement, Bersih 3.0 in Malaysia, Moldova’s Revolution, and similar movements have reinforced the link between the technology and the people who use them. These high-profile movements exist alongside the individual narratives of personal social connections that people experience every day. In many ways, the success of the former depends on the latter.
In their new book “Networked: The New Social Operating System”, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman (2012) describe the revolutions of social networks, the Internet, and the mobile phone as intersecting to form a triple revolution that has “[shifted] people’s social lives away from densely knit family, neighbourhood, and group relationships toward more far-flung, less tight, more diverse personal networks” (p. 11).
Arguing for the need to look beyond a simplistic binary evaluation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the authors assert that the impact of the triple revolution on society is both good and bad, and more besides. Above all, theirs is a thesis based on agency: some people manage their networks better than others, different networks operate in different ways, and definitions of sociality and social currency are changing along with the technologies that support, construct and articulate them. It will come as no surprise that there are opposing schools of thought based on the structural constraints imposed by and upon all three technologies Rainie and Wellman highlight. Social networks, the Internet and the mobile phone are all subject to the conditions of their invention, evolution and implementation.
Website architecture holds a hidden curriculum that trains us in how to behave as citizens of cyberspace (Longford, 2005). It also trains us about what to expect of our cyberspace experiences. Eli Pariser (2011) tells us that we are trapped in ‘filter bubbles’ because our searches are being tailored for us by algorithms designed by large corporations like Facebook and Google. While these algorithms make our searches more efficient, they cut us off from the sorts of discoveries that make us more aware of the world and the people around us. Markus Prior (2007) refers to this as an efficient media environment – one in which we get only and exactly what we are seeking.
The effects of this efficiency are alarming to those who believe in the need for a unified public sphere for supporting democracy. But what does it mean at a personal level? If we are cut off from serendipitous encounters with people and information because algorithms have deemed them irrelevant for us, surely that can be a good thing because it means that we can focus more on the things and people that matter to us. Or does it mean that we enter new realms of discomfort as the technologies we use increasingly impose themselves on our psychological and social consciousness?
In “Alone Together”, Sherry Turkle (2011) posits that the technologies we use are making us lonelier. While we are constantly connected, she asserts, we have never been more alone than we are now, when we are buried in our screens and have forgotten how to converse with the people around us. Her thesis has resonated with many people, finding purchase in an audience that senses that social media has had an impact on their lives and their comfort zones.
It has, but perhaps not in the way that they think. While perceptions are important, the data seems to show that something a little more complex is going on in the latest iteration of the technology-and-society relationship. Accusing Turkle of ‘Digital Dualism’, Nathan Jurgenson argues instead from the perspective of ‘Augmented Reality’. Far from being two separate entities, the digital and the physical are increasingly getting meshed. Instead of becoming less social and lonelier because of technology, people are using social media to become more social in new ways. In an article in The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci disputes Turkle’s theory of social media-induced loneliness, suggesting instead that if at all we are feeling any sense of displacement, it has more to do with the results of capitalism than the technology per se. Given this macro-sociological force, social media is actually proving to increase connections between people, helping them to cope with the consequences of modernity.
If all the data points to social media enabling human connections in a world where the digital and physical are increasingly inseparable, why does the trope of technology-induced loneliness endure? Part of the reason is the definition of what counts as social. Turkle describes herself as “a psychoanalytically trained psychologist. Both by temperament and profession, I place high value on relationships of intimacy and authenticity” (p. 6). Intimacy and authenticity are problematic concepts that need to be defined, taking into account how they have evolved in the present day.
While it is true that Facebook has changed how we use the word “friendship”, the fact that it was able to do so points to the already transforming conceptualisation of the word in our modern world. The same may be said of terms like ‘family’, ‘marriage’, and ‘relationships’, to name a few. Anthony Giddens (1999) refers to these as ‘shell institutions’. In name they appear to have remained unchanged from the past, but in reality the meanings they convey have a very different significance for people today.
We also need to think about how sites like Facebook equate with the robots that cause Turkle so much concern – she begins her book with vignettes about how these forms of artificial intelligence are being used to replicate and substitute for human contact. Are they on the same spectrum or fundamentally different within the too-broad framework of the technological?
She makes an assumptive link between the two when, after talking about robots being offered as substitutes for human attention and affection, she says that “We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices” and then goes on to include emails, IM and social media (p. 11). But this is not a simple progression. There are essential ways in which these media are different in our lives than robots, even while there are also ways in which they are the same, and these convergences and divergences need to be acknowledged and analysed.
What then IS the role that social media plays in this socio-psychological landscape? Even if we accept that it doesn’t make us lonelier on a macro-level, people’s micro-level perceptions that they are lonely while connected are legitimate, insofar as they shape discussions and policies related to such technologies. I would like to suggest that a clue to the answer lies in the little story that I started this essay with. Mrbrown has access to a twitter network that starts with his more-than 60,000 followers. Anyone who has a Twitter account knows that maintaining a network of this size (even assuming some of them are bots that automatically follow accounts) takes a great deal of hard work on a daily basis. You not only have to tweet often, you have to tweet relevantly, interestingly, and in a manner that earns you many retweets. Social media has the power to increase connections and to widen the support network – but only if you have the skills to cultivate your network.
This brings us back to the question of whether social media makes people lonely. To borrow a line from Rainie and Wellman, I would argue that it does and does not, and more besides. It is a powerful tool to counter the effects of modernity for those who possess the ability to use it, and who therefore shape the way in which it is evolving. Perhaps for that very reason, it is necessary to turn our attention to the lived realities of social media. How do people cope with it on an everyday basis? How do they navigate their relationships in a modern world that is both digital and physical? What about people who don’t feel that they have the ability? Is there some way in which, unbeknown to them, they are still living a life that is more social than it would have been without the technologies that they are so uncomfortable with?
As with any question worth asking, there are no easy answers.The contributions in this volume keep the debate going in an engaging manner, from applying theories of agency and structure to building on personal experiences with networked technologies.
Giddens, A. (1999) Runaway world: How globalisation is reshaping our lives. Profile Books.
Longford, G. (2005). Pedagogies of Digital Citizenship and the Politics of Code. Techne 9:1, pp. 68-96.
Pariser, E. (2011) The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. The Penguin Press HC.
Prior, M. (2007). Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections. Cambridge University Press.
Rainie, L. and Wellman, B. (2012) Networked: The new social operating system. The MIT Press
Turkle, S. (2011) Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books.