Social Media's Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships

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It's just one factor in modern life that can increase connection in a world divided by the vagaries of capitalism, the disengagement of television, and the isolation of suburban sprawl.

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A few years ago I had an interview for a job at one of the leading academic departments in my field. Maybe because I knew that I wasn't likely to be offered the job, I saw the day as a relaxed opportunity to meet people carrying out interesting research.  My comfort with the day was shaken, however,  when a faculty member showed me ongoing research on avatars -- bots -- designed to interact with (and provide therapy for) human children with autism. I squirmed. I squinted.  I tried to voice my discomfort. I lost my voice. I turned away. I was shaken for the rest of the day and on my way back. That flickering image of the bot we'd one day turn our children over to still haunts me.

I don't discount the appeal of automating such therapy. Working with children with autism is difficult, tiring work, especially since the social rewards -- the smile, the eye-contact, the hug, the thank you -- that make most of us tick are few and far between. I've never tried such an endeavor; I'm in no position to judge anyone. 

Still the barely-pixelated, realistic face of the "therapist" talking on the screen scares me because it is indeed an indicator of one possible future. Much of what ails our modern life is exactly because we reduce the value of a human being to a number, say salary or consumer power. And the first to be thrown overboard tend to be the elderly, the disabled, and anyone not integrated tightly into the global supply-chain. This phenomenon, coupled with the growing powers of automation and artificial intelligence which promises to make replacing human beings even cheaper, means there is a very important conversation we need to be having -- but that conversation is not about the effects of social media.

That might not have been apparent to those who picked up their Sunday New York Times to find Sherry Turkle's latest essay arguing that social media are driving us apart. If anything, social media is a counterweight to the ongoing devaluation of human lives. Social media's rapid rise is a loud, desperate, emerging attempt by people everywhere to connect with *each other* in the face of all the obstacles that modernity imposes on our lives: suburbanization that isolates us from each other, long working-hours and commutes that are required to make ends meet, the global migration that scatters families across the globe, the military-industrial-consumption machine that drives so many key decisions, and, last but not least, the television -- the ultimate alienation machine -- which remains the dominant form of media. (For most people, the choice is not leisurely walks on Cape Cod versus social media. It's television versus social media). 

As a social media researcher and a user, every time I read one of these "let's panic" articles about social media (and there are many), I want to shout: Look at TV! Look at commutes! Look at suburbs! Look at long work hours! That is, essentially, my response to Stephen Marche's "Facebook Is Making Us Lonely," which ran in The Atlantic magazine.

And then, please, look at the extensive amount of data that show that social-media users are having more conversations with people -- online and off! 

What evidence we do have does not suggest a displacement of one type of conversation (offline) with another (online). All data I've seen say that people who use social media are either also more social offline; or that they have benefited from social media to keep in touch with people they otherwise could not; or that many people find fellows, peers and like-minded individuals they otherwise could not find. In other words, texting, Facebook-status updates, and Twitter conversations are not displacing face-to-face socializing -- on average, they are making them stronger. Social media is enhancing human connectivity as people can converse in ways that were once not possible. Surveys also show that most families think social media enhances their family life -- they can stay in touch better, more frequently. (Obviously, there are many complex impacts and not every person is going to "average" impacts.) 

In other words, the people Turkle sees with their heads down on their devices while on a train somewhere are ... connecting to people they deem important in their lives. They are not talking to bots. 

Why would they be talking to bots? People tend to hate talking to bots. Anyone who's active on social media would see that. And social media is certainly easy to dismiss from afar. But close up, it's alive and brimming with humanity (and all the good and bad that comes along with that). And, as with all conversational settings, social media does not make much sense taken out of the context. (Ever seen verbatim transcripts of face-to-face conversations? They are almost incomprehensible even though they make perfect sense in the moment.) 

One other category that is often overlooked are people who are either not that comfortable at some aspects of face-to-face conversation but find online interaction to be liberating. It's not that these people are not seeking human contact. It's just that they find it hard to make that initial connection. They are the people who don't dominate conversations, the people who appear shy, are less outgoing, who feel nervous talking to new people. Sometimes it's because they are different from the people around them. 

From Arab Spring dissidents who were minorities in their communities to my students from a variety of backgrounds, from gay teens in rural areas to just people who feel awkward when in company of new people, I've heard the sentiment again and again that new communication tools are what saved their (offline) social lives. 

So far, I've talked about two categories of people -- those who were already social and who are becoming even more social offline as a result of offline connectivity, and those who have felt awkward offline and who are benefiting from online socializing. What I've not seen in the data I look at extensively (national surveys, qualitative research and other accounts) are significant number of people who were otherwise able and willing to be social face-to-face and are now lost to their devices. It is true that the rise of the Internet may result in some people feeling more isolated than before, but those will likely be the people who do not or cannot use these new tools to engage their social ties. Such people, who reluctantly socialize via online methods due to skill or cost or personal disposition may well find themselves *left out* of conversation. 

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Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She writes regularly at her personal site, Technosociology.

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