Social Media and Personal Connection

I had a conversation today a friend who claimed that “social media creates a false sense of connection and drives us further apart.” First of all, I’m not sure what counts as social media. For example, some argue that blogs count as social media, while others disagree. But if social media are “computer-mediated technologies that allow the creating and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks,” then blogs are social media. And I do think that I connect with others through my blog.

At any rate I wouldn’t say that social media create a “false” sense of connection, but rather a “different” sense. In life, we know others to varying degrees. A connection with someone on Facebook or Twitter may typically be shallower than a connection between people who know each other personally, but that doesn’t mean the connection is bad or false. After all, you can have face-to-face relationships which are terrible. Maybe what we should say is that modern technology allows you, in general, to communicate with vastly more people than in the past, but that with the increased quantity probably comes a loss of quality. Still your social media acquaintances are less likely to kill than your friends or family!

What all this got me to thinking about was the role of technology in mediating human connectivity. (Disclaimer, I know nothing about communication theory.) If I Skype or talk on the phone with someone, read a book they wrote or watch a movie about them, I am connecting with them. So I know Bertrand Russell a little bit from reading his books, but not as well as if I had lived with him. And if I read his philosophical writings, I may know him better, in some sense, than people who knew him personally but never read his books. So if he were alive today and was my Facebook friend, I don’t think we should call this a false connection. True it wouldn’t be a deep connection, but it would be better than no connection at all.

Now consider letter writing. There was a time not that long ago when many people had “pen pals,” yesterday’s equivalent of email friends. Email is faster than letter writing, but both allow people to connect in ways that were impossible before we had computers or paper and letter carriers. I often feel that I actually communicate better with others through writing rather than in person. Using the written word allows me to be more clear and precise than oral communication, and eliminates the apprehension that often accompanies direct human interactions.

Thinking about communications reminded me that in graduate school I was fortunate enough to work in the same building with, and read some of the writing of,  Walter Ong SJ (1912 – 2003). Ong was an American Jesuit priest, humanist and communication theorist, and professor of English literature at St. Louis University for many years.

Ong’s  major interest was in exploring how the transition from orality to literacy influenced culture and changed human consciousness. He argued that the invention of writing played a major role in the emergence of individualism by providing the technology to think alone and to pursue intricate studies impossible in oral cultures that rely solely on face-to-face communication and memory. Ong claimed specifically, that the technologies of writing and printing created a new individualistic character, the private author who addresses an indefinite population. Paradoxically, he thought that “there is an inverse relationship between the number of people you are addressing and how alone you have to be.”

So I was introduced long ago to the sense that while technology changes communication, it doesn’t necessarily undermine it and may, in some ways, enhance it. You can easily imagine future technologies that would allow us to communicate even better, perhaps by being able to really feel what it is like to be the other or probe directly into others minds. Obviously Twitter and Facebook are shallow forms of communication, and on the whole they may be detrimental to society and personal relationships. But I reject the idea that technology necessarily leads to a decrease in the quality of human connectivity. In fact on the whole better technology allows for better communication.

Still, I offer a disclaimer, for I am sympathetic with the sentiments Andrew Sullivan expresses in “I Used To Be A Human Being,”

Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.

So in the end, I’m just not sure about social media, technology and personal connection. Perhaps some of my readers have more ideas.

3 thoughts on “Social Media and Personal Connection

  1. Birth spasms of the Singularity. Just reflect on how different the online tone is now versus 2012, for example.
    No one should expect this to be pretty. I’m keeping my head down.

  2. A few thoughts:
    The other day I was listening to some old music and I came across Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “I’m a-leavin’ on a jet plane”. It’s such a sad song, and yet it has been obsolete for years. Back then, flying away meant a prolonged separation only broken by occasional letters. I remember back in 1977 going to a monthlong training program and leaving my wife Kathy behind. We missed each other so much; we wrote letters but we still felt totally separated from one another. Back then, long-distance telephone calls were horridly expensive. But nowadays, you can communicate with anybody, almost anywhere, in direct video. Leaving on a jet plane isn’t any big deal. Right now my wife is a thousand miles away. We spoke once this morning by telephone, a little later by video, and we’ll speak again tonight by video.

    Wow! You got to talk with Walter Ong! That must’ve been something! I have his book “Orality and Literacy” right here in my office. It’s been 15 years since I read it; I think I’ll re-read it. He really drove home how much literacy has changed the way we think. I believe, however, that he missed Aristotle’s realization that writing is a navigational tool for thinking. Mr. Ong taught that writing forces you to think through your ideas rigorously, but I don’t think he saw how it directly led to genuine science. The syllogism is the daughter of literacy.

    Yes, I do believe that I shall re-read his book; I’ve probably forgotten some things and you always get more out of a book when you come back to it after having read other material on the topic.

    Lastly, the deeper significance of writing letters. I made a new friend in 1992. That was at the early years of email and she didn’t have an email account. She lived in Britain, so we exchanged letters on matters of deep personal import. I kept all her letters because they were so well-thought out, so much deeper than you can get from a conversation. In a letter, there’s no space for trivia; you zero in on the essentials.

    If we find the difference between orality and literacy to be so hugely significant, I wonder if the difference between writing by hand and fast typing is not in some way also significant?

  3. Hi Chris

    You are correct about communications technology overcoming separation, that’s certainly one of its benefits. I did speak to Ong a few times, and my best friend in grad school took one of his seminars so I’m familiar with his work. But if he missed that point about Aristotle that would be a mistake. Writing is my major tool for thinking. In fact when my adult children or my wife and I are in deep conversations and they ask my opinion, I tend to say something but then go home and write about the topic and my thoughts are much clarified.

    I’m less sure about the handwriting vs. typing claim. My father made a big deal out of handwritten letters being better than typed ones but I think he had in mind the former being generally personal while the latter tended to be advertisements, bills, etc. If all the personal letters came typed and the bills written by hand I think he might have realized that it was the content not the style that was important.

    I also had a mentor in grad school who wrote in the most beautiful caligraphy I’ve ever seen. I have kept a few samples just because it was so aesthetically pleasing. He even wrote this way on the chalkboard in grad school. The entire board was covered with this beautiful writing when you arrived and when class was over he erased it—and it was so painful to see it erased! But if the board contain triviality and he had passed out a typed page with substance, I’d take the latter every time. So I don’t think the difference is significant. In fact, though I was taught wonderful cursive by nuns, I’d much rather type because its so much faster. I think typing is one of the most useful skills I learned in all of high school! Which is weird since there are no typewriters any more.

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