Thursday, June 16, 2011

Latest research says social media is not making us weird

Posted By on 06.16.11 at 08:00 AM

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Among those who have not embraced social media — and many who have — there is anxiety about what they are doing to our minds and souls.

Here is the conventional wisdom put simply. Priscilla Warner wrote this week on HuffPo:

Somehow social media had made me strangely antisocial. Keeping up with the world of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and that pack of people whose profile pictures seem to follow me everywhere I go online was keeping me from engaging with some of the people I'd known for decades.

I've tried my best to be my authentic self on social media (without sending intimate photos). I have on occasion sent heartfelt messages to people I've never met in real life. Some of those messages have led to friendships, and some have gone unanswered. I've received extraordinary emails from readers of a book I co-authored. But I know that I've probably not answered every single message I've ever received, and I'm not proud of that fact. I know that people are slipping through the cracks of my life, and I'm not sure that I can blame technology.

The New York Times's Ross Douthat offered a tonier view of the subject:

Writing in the late '70s, [Christopher] Lasch distinguished modern narcissism from old-fashioned egotism. The contemporary narcissist, he wrote, differs "from an earlier type of American individualist" in "the tenuous quality of his selfhood." Despite "his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem." His innate insecurity can only be overcome "by seeing his 'grandiose self' reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma."

This is a depressingly accurate anticipation of both the relationship between [Anthony] Weiner and his female "followers," and the broader "look at me! look at meeeee!" culture of online social media...

And here it is put even more loftily, by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books:

You want to be optimistic about your own generation. You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand. To put it another way, if you feel discomfort at the world they’re making, you want to have a good reason for it. Master programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (b. 1960) is not of my generation, but he knows and understands us well, and has written a short and frightening book, You Are Not a Gadget, which chimes with my own discomfort, while coming from a position of real knowledge and insight, both practical and philosophical. Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics). In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person.” In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget. In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation, Lanier argues, which is "based on [a] philosophical mistake…the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do."

We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible...

Lanier wants us to be attentive to the software into which we are “locked in.” Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn’t limited? As Lanier argues: "Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence."

But the pack mentality is precisely what Open Graph, a Facebook innovation of 2008, is designed to encourage. Open Graph allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.

But now comes the Pew Research Center with a report that concludes that Americans who use social networking sites, "especially Facebook users, have higher measures of social well-being."

Pew's Internet & American Life Project interviewed 2,255 adults by telephone last fall. Thursday Pew reported that Facebook users:

Are more trusting of others.
Have more close relationships.
Are much more politically engaged.
Get more social support.

Facebook, says Pew, "helps users retain high school ties and it revives dormant relationships."

Here are a couple of findings that Pew describes as "surprising":

Social networking sites are increasingly used to keep up with close social ties. Looking at those people that SNS users report as their core discussion confidants, 40% of users have friended all of their closest confidants. This is a substantial increase from the 29% of users who reported in our 2008 survey that they had friended all of their core confidants.

MySpace users are more likely to be open to opposing points of view. We measured “perspective taking,” or the ability of people to consider multiple points of view. There is no evidence that SNS users, including those who use Facebook, are any more likely than others to cocoon themselves in social networks of like-minded and similar people, as some have feared. Moreover, regression analysis found that those who use MySpace have significantly higher levels of perspective taking.

Could this possibly be? Conventional wisdom accuses SNS habitues of both cocooning themselves with fellow travelers and trivializing relationships by friending lots of people they barely know and don't actually want to know. Both these damning charges might not be true, since they seem to contradict other. But if one isn't, what if the other is!

Here's a a link to the full report, a summary, and the questions asked participants. Tweet what you think.

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