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.