Time to continue with my series of posts considering the ideas presented in a series of posts by Dr. Tracy Dennis. Today we’ll look at “Social Media: A Flight from Conversation?” In this post Dr. Dennis considers some ideas of Sherry Turkle’s work and I’ll follow along using the same list. The basic idea is:
… more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.
Dr. Dennis follow this with her own approach:
It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research.
As a basic and preliminary comment I think there will be a big challenge to do actual empirical studies: a) where do you get a control group? I would argue that any kids that don’t heavily use social media will be outliers to begin with (poor, in third world countries, technophobes, social outcasts, etc), and, b) how long (and how much) do kids have to use the social media to have other social skills impaired? IOW, it would seem such a study would have to start rather early in a child’s life and continue for a long time, so is a 10-15 study really feasible? And then quantitatively measuring: “alienation“, “aloneness“, “capacity for solitude“, sounds like a real challenge, especially with any correlation to social media usage.
1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. This seems to stand on its own – obviously we have finite time and the more we spend at a device the less we can spend in direct interaction. But does this mean somehow we won’t know how to talk to another person, or merely choose not to, at least through voice? I’m researching another post based on a study that show the kiddies are decreasing their voice communications while increasing texting, so much so that some of the service providers are even considering plans without voice service (something I’d like). Comedians (IIRC, recently Lewis Black) make jokes about how smartphones have an app to allow calls, try it some time. But I take a different tack on this: a) text is quicker and fits into a busy schedule, b) texting can be done clandestinely, something you can sneak in while doing something else (unlike calls in the middle of a class or meeting), c) texting is asynchronous so the recipient can read and respond as they wish, and, d) you can text multiple people at once. In short, texting is more usable. The phone has had its day. But does this mean these people can’t talk in person or is it just a particular technology, the phone, which is declining in use. And, frankly, I actually prefer being with someone who looks at a text rather than interrupting our interaction with a phonecall (which seems very rude to me), so is this even a bad thing, maybe social interaction is better?
2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Presumably here Dr. Dennis is restating on of Dr. Turkle’s idea and then analyzing it. My reaction is that I don’t quite know what this means. I have certainly had contact with people only through remote means but I consider them colleagues and neither companions or friends. I made my first “cyber-friends” through geodashing, 4 teammates all distance, two even completely anonymous but I don’t need to have either a “companion” or “friend” relationship with them to share a common goal. I know only a little about their life, but so what, I know where and when and how much they do their geodashing. Now presumably most of the kids (and even more so the adults) have their social media connections with people they already know or people at least in their world, plus then a few remote ones. But for the remote ones what other kind of companionship or friendship could they? Are we losing something here or gaining something?
3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” I question whether we’re escaping “boring” or just ignoring stuff that is the normal social drivel. How much of any social conversation is really “about” something and how much is just being in the physical presence of another person? i.e. the art of conversational small talk, which is imposed (to fill up the awkward silences) on us by physical proximity. And is it that we don’t “want” to give full attention or simply that we can’t? I took off about 6 years from working, spanning the period where texting was uncommon to when it was routine, and, yes, it was a shock that most business meetings seemed more like everyone texting than real attention. But I also learned, in my years working in Japan, that there, culturally, a lot of attendance to meetings is required (esp. during negotiation where the Japanese side always had one more person (whether involved or not) than our side) and therefore it was actually just fine for someone to literally go to sleep in the meeting, a major faux pas in U.S. style, but fine there. And I really doubt the claims of multitasking, so I never felt meetings were as productive with everyone engaged with their devices. But was that just an illusion? In the past, pre-texting world were people just off in a daydream anyway, but it was just harder to notice. So I suppose now that means we don’t have to “read” our audience (seeing them drift away) since they’ll have their head buried in their device anyway.
So, in short, I’m not sure I see the problem. Our manner for interaction has changed, big deal – is it really any significant difference or just style? Do we get less done in meetings? Is there less mutual understanding (OTSP)? Are we less emphatic (in the social venue)? Are we being more rude (absolutely, I think, but again so what, that’s all relative).
Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.
I agree wholeheartedly, because if there is anything about looking into what people say about social media it’s: a) all over the map, lots of divergent ideas, and, b) it’s really short of much real evidence. But studying the phenomenon scientifically, while definitely useful, also has to include the “so what” idea. Things change. What about the telephone when it was introduced, didn’t that kill writing letters? And what about literacy itself, didn’t that kill group gatherings and the oral traditions? Hasn’t the move from agrarian to industrial and now information ages also changed a lot? Is anything lost? Is something gained?