Impact of wired world – 11

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).

And so,

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?


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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4 Responses to Impact of wired world – 11

  1. I always find your “so what” questions very interesting and challenging, because for me, as a psychologist (and just in terms of my personality) the so whats seem so obvious. On a small scale, less empathy and more rudeness in our day-to-day interactions may not personally bother you, but it does me. I don’t really want to be in a context in which it’s ok to text my way through a meeting or habitually not value the person in front of you over things that are happening elsewhere and probably on a different time scale (but that our devices allow us to parallel process). I think about the message children get when they see the back of our devices so often that they have to compete with them for our attention.

    On a bigger scale, I think it’s fully possible that these small changes in “manner” as you say over time will result in bigger social changes that we have to contend with. I think we’re gaining a lot for sure (don’t take my devices away from me!!), but the “addictive” nature of these devices (and I honestly think there is something to this, more so than other social communication technologies) also makes the potential downsides very real. For example, the increase in parallel processing (and thus doing everything less well) is a very real consequence, I believe, and not one that’s improving the quality of our lives in my opinion. Not having to “read” our audience as a adult may be ok, but I truly question whether there is any benefit in terms of children’s emotional development.

    Not my most coherent set of thoughts, but there they are :-). I’m following your blog with great interest.

    • douq says:

      Thanks for the comment! As to following my blogs I know I’m not making that easy, with all the wandering around on topics and lengthy posts, but I’m enjoying the writing and looking for things I can think about and your posts are certainly a rich source of material.

      I probably didn’t get my “so what” quite right. Like you I actually find some behavior rude. I really began to notice that in my wife’s family gatherings, everyone, except me, with attention only on their device. I actually got my own because I figured if I’m sitting there, essentially alone by myself, what not, although I’m more likely to be using Kindle app (reading seems to be passing with the times too). I guess what I essentially minimized was some condemnation of the behavior, but, OTOH, I also essentially accept it as a reality. I think all sorts of civility has left behavior since I was young and I miss a lot of it, but I just feel it’s something, perhaps more, in the category of “get over it” since the world has its own momentum. But I also do believe it’s the change over time that we (the ones who have gone from not having to having any technology) may notice and that the young take for granted since it’s all they’ve known, but that’s why I sometimes bring up culture (my main experience being in Japan and China) because some of what’s being lost may be unique to U.S. (maybe Europe, don’t know) and not necessarily the global norm. For instance in Japan, a society known for ritualized politeness I often found people, outside formal protocol, to be very rude, which seemed strange to me, but it’s just what they’re used to. So if there is a shift in behavior, measurable, possibly undesirable to people used to the older ways, is that just equivalent to a cultural shift?

      As to your second point I also think there is so much faddiness to much of the social media that we may just be seeing short-term phenomenon. The U.S. is famous for trends exploding overnight and being forgotten tomorrow. When the novelty wears out how much of the behavior will we continue to see. I’m trying to search for sources for articles about trends in either Facebook or Twitter and the best I can average out the clutter is that perhaps the glow is already off a bit – even one claim that the younger brothers and sisters of the Facebook generation are already bored and want something new (and that daughters want something different than their moms are using). Now I think texting is here to stay and phone usage will continue to decline (adults complained for years about telephone tag, texting has largely solved that). I think these small changes do add up, as you say, in bigger changes. Compared to my young adulthood I really don’t envy kids today. I was appalled that the out-of-college job I got is largely gone today so how will talented and educated young people get the chance to grow with experience if they have to take unpaid internships. I was personally torn that I was teaching young Chinese the same lessons I used to teach young U.S. college hires, except there were none of those in my company. So some of what I see kids doing I think of as their coping with the times, which I see as definitely different (and unfortunately worse) than when I was their age. I defend the kids to my 97YO mother who thinks all this is crazy, saying simply it’s their future they’ll have to live in and our past may just not apply to them.

  2. douq says:

    I need to follow up on this more when I move over to researching Turkle’s writings directly even though she doesn’t blog and public information is less available. May have to get the book.

  3. dmill96 says:

    There are some ideas about this in this post: although this primarily deals with loneliness fostered by Facebook.

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