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

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.

Presented by

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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