Own It: Social Media Isn't Just Something Other People Do

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Sherry Turkle writes as though digital life is something that happens to other people. But it isn't. It's something we create.

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A resident of Greenspring Village Community in Springfield, Virginia plays Wii Boxing. Reuters.

I worry about my mom. Like a lot of older people today, she fritters away her social time with whoever she runs into, instead of sustaining continued conversations with the people she cares about the most.

A similar problem plagues one of my senior colleagues. She wears the fatigue of someone who's drained by the day's activities, rather than charged by its accomplishments. Small wonder, when she allows her day to be consumed by a string of meetings in which she's only occasionally relevant, rather than pouring her attention into the deeper projects that would make an impact and provide satisfaction.

Both of their struggles pale in comparison with the challenges faced by an elderly relative in another state. She welcomes our conversations, when she can unburden herself of the secrets she keeps from her daily companions. She lives in a state of permanent isolation, surrounded by people who spend time with her but don't actually know her true thoughts, values or talents.

But worrying about kids who choose to live online is as misplaced as worrying about seniors who choose to live offline.

It's a troubling pattern I see among too many of today's seniors. Rather than investing in sustained, meaningful conversations with people who love them and share their passions, they waste their their time on sporadic, societally-mandated interactions driven primarily by geographic proximity.

If only they would wake up from their obsession with face-to-face interaction, and spend more time on Facebook or Twitter!

As preposterous as this may sound, it's no more absurd than what you can find in this Sunday's New York Times. In a piece on "The Flight from Conversation", Sherry Turkle,one of the leading critics of our online lives, presents a similarly generational case against online interaction:

In today's workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. "Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits." With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

While Turkle's concern extends to her peers and even her elders -- like the older woman who is content to be comforted by a robot -- she worries most about these young people who don't even remember the good old days of face-to-face conversation. Many of the red flags she raises in her Times piece come directly from the teen interviews she cites in her thoughtful book, Alone Together. Faced with youth who are baffled by the intimacy of a phone conversation, she calls for us old-timers to preserve the values and social norms of offline culture, and transmit them to the kids and teens who understand connectivity, but not true connection.

But worrying 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.

That prism commits us to using the wrong pronouns, and thus, to asking the wrong questions. We look at a generation that has grown up online, and we worry about how "they" can't put down their iPhones, how "they" can't hold a real conversation, how "they" prefer distraction to presence. How will they form relationships? How will they learn to listen, or to be heard?

The real and difficult questions are not about them, but about us. How will we choose to live online? How will we sustain conversations, build relationships, and cultivate genuine connection? And for those who are experiencing the kind of angst Turkle describes, an even more challenging question: How can I change when, where and how to plug in so that I actually like my life online?

As long as we frame the digital transformation in the third person, we maintain a comfortable distance from our individual and collective responsibility for how it will unfold. We absolve ourselves with an implicit story about technological determinism -- look at what the Internet is doing to them -- or comfort ourselves with a vague fantasy in which government policies, educational institutions or social conventions teach them to live in the way we know is best.

But digital life isn't something that happens to them; it's something created by us. The most powerful part of Turkle's argument, in her book as well as in her recent piece, come when she shifts back into the first person: "we have confused conversation with connection"; "we flee from solitude"; "[w]e expect more from technology and less from one another". In these pronouns, and in these observations, lie the potential for conscious choices about how to engage online, and how to create online lives that support both conversation and connection.

We can have what Turkle terms a "big gulp of real conversation" -- through a chat window that keeps us connected, all day, to a best friend on the other side of the country. We can embrace the value of solitude and self-reflection, writing a blog post that digs deeply into a personal challenge -- perhaps choosing to write anonymously in order to share a deeper level of self-revelation than we'd brave offline. We can truly listen, and truly be heard, because online affinity groups help us find or rediscover friends who are prepared to meet us as we really are.

These are the tools, practices, and communities that can make online life not a flight from conversation, but a flight to it. But we will not realize these opportunities as long as we cling to a nostalgia for conversation as we remember it, describe the emergence of digital culture in generational terms, or absolve ourselves of responsibility for creating an online world in which meaningful connection is the norm rather than the exception. We are making that digital shift together -- old and young, geeky and trepidatious -- and we are only as alone as we choose to be.

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Alexandra Samuel is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, on CBC Radio, and in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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