Tag Archives: Facebook

Is Technological Determinism Making Us Stupid?

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?In a recent interview I did with the Figure/Ground project, the interviewer asked me what I thought of Stephen Marche’s recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” I had read the article when it first ran, so I replied that if you read it closely, this article doesn’t really argue for the position implied in the title and abstract. Although Marche starts with the assumption that Facebook is making people lonely, he ends up articulating a much more nuanced position by the end. After I explained what I meant by that, I concluded by saying, “the better question to ask is why are these kinds of articles so popular? Why are we seeing such a sudden rash of articles entitled ‘is pick-your-new-technology making us stupid/narcissistic/lonely/shallow/etc.?’”

Thankfully, the interviewer didn’t ask me to answer my own question. If he had, I’m not sure I could have given him a good answer at the time. These kinds of articles are, of course, nothing terribly new. I remember articles from my youth that asked if calculators were making us lazy, or if Sony Walkmans were making us socially isolated and possibly deaf. A trip through the newspaper archives would no doubt reveal similar articles surrounding the mass-adoption of just about any new technological device, especially those since the 1960s.

Instead of trying to engage the specific questions that these articles pose, I think it might be more interesting to ask, why are these authors framing their questions in this sort of yes/no, pro/con, good/bad way? And why does framing their questions in that way seem to attract a large number of readers and secondary commentary?

The economically-minded answer would probably note that these kinds of headlines are more attention-grabbing, and that the ultimate goal of any publication funded by advertising is to grab attention. I wouldn’t doubt that this is a contributing factor, and I’m happy that at least in the case of Marche’s article, he nevertheless finds a more nuanced position.

But I also wonder if technological determinism has seeped so far into the popular collective conscious that it is difficult for journalists and the public to think any other way about technology and society. This kind of framing tends to betray an underlying assumption that technology “impacts” society in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Authors may debate whether those impacts are good or bad, but they tend to assume that those impacts will always be inevitable, deterministic, and irreversible.

In the introduction to the classic book Does Technology Drive History?, Merritt Roe Smith argues that Americans in particular have always been attracted to this way of thinking because our national identity has always been wrapped up with technology and the ideology of progress. Our greatest heroes have been inventors and industrialists, not artists or humanitarians, and we commonly attribute our current global hegemony to our technological prowess.

But Americans have also become more willing since the 1960s to question the supposed benefits of new innovations, and to enquire about the often undisclosed costs. Nevertheless, this seems to happen only after the innovation becomes mass-adopted. When Google first appeared on the scene, journalists praised it for its clean look, efficiency, and uncanny ability to find what it was you were really looking for. We rooted for them as the up-and-coming underdog, and we rejoiced in their algorithms’ abilities to bring some kind of order to the ever-growing morass of information on the web. But once it became so ubiquitous that it transmogrified into its own verb, we began to see articles like Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Why do we frame the questions in these ways? And why do articles that use this kind of framing generate such interest and secondary commentary? Do they poke at some deep-seated anxieties that we have about technological change? Let me know what you think.

Update: I just found a fantastic blog post by a social media researcher named Zeynep Tufekci that offers three possible answers:

  1. We actually have become more isolated (in terms of strong ties) during the same period that social media has arisen, so we assume that the latter has caused the former, even though evidence to the contrary is legion.
  2. Online socialization really can’t entirely replace face-to-face interaction, so we also assume that increased use of social networking causes increased feelings of isolation, even though people who are social online are also social offline.
  3. “Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well [a condition she calls 'cyberasociality']. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.”

See her post for more details, including links to primary research that backs up what she is saying.

Facebook Fast

Facebook LogoA few posts back, I mentioned that I was giving up Facebook for Lent this year. Now that Lent is over, and I’m back on Facebook, I thought I would reflect a bit on how this limited form of a “digital sabbath” worked out.

At the start, I was concerned that this little experiment of mine might prove to be too difficult, as I really felt that I had become a bit too addicted to Facebook of late. Most of my work right now consists of long-term research, writing, and conference planning projects, so I would often check Facebook whenever I was a little bored, distracted, or just wanting to avoid doing my work. I wondered if I would actually make it until Easter, or if I would just cave part way through.

I have to admit that for the first couple of days, I often found my mouse impulsively shooting up to where the bookmark used to be in my browser window, only to be reminded by its absence of my Lenten fast. This impulse subsided after a few days though, and abstaining from Facebook turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be. I did break the fast once, to self-promote a piece published on Bloomberg.com, but other than that, I stayed off until Easter.

So what did I do with all that extra time? Some productive things, but also some unproductive things. On the productive side, I managed to read a number of books and articles I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, and because I knew that I couldn’t break away and check Facebook when I became distracted, I found that I was better able to follow longer and more complex arguments. I also spent more time going on walks, thinking through problems, praying, and seeking direction. And I even got my sorely-neglected saxophone out of its case and did some practicing, which felt really good.

But if I was to be honest, I also spent quite a lot of time doing things on the web that were simply pale substitutes for checking Facebook. Instead of checking to see who interacted with my latest status update, I routinely checked the page view stats on my blog, hoping to get that same feeling of acceptance and legitimation. Instead of reading and seeing what my friends were up to, I compulsively read news sites, hoping to feel more in touch with what was going on. And instead of sharing interesting articles I came across with my Facebook friends, I tried tweeting them, but I don’t think anyone was listening.

So does Facebook cause me to be more distracted, or is it just a convenient tool for fulfilling my own desire to be distracted? Is it making me shallow and narcissistic, or is it just one of many places where I can feed my existing insecurities?

The answer is probably a bit of both. As I’ve argued before, each of us needs to be aware not only of our own personal vulnerabilities, but also whether the ways in which we are using our technologies are connecting with those vulnerabilities. I could try to blame Facebook for my foibles, but it’s probably more accurate to say that affordances of Facebook are very well aligned with my some of my existing vulnerabilities. If Facebook didn’t exist, I would still have those vulnerabilities, but I also need to recognize that particular ways of using Facebook might also be making them worse.

Now that Lent is over and I’m back on Facebook, I’ve been much more conscious of the ways in which it can often hit my vulnerabilities. I’ve decided to limit my usage not just in terms of time, but also in terms of what I am trying to get from it. I’ll still post things that I think others will find interesting, but I’m trying not to care how many “likes” I get, or how many comments it might solicit. I still enjoy reading what my friends are doing, but I will try not to compare myself to them and feel inadequate when I don’t measure up. In other words, I don’t simply need to use Facebook less—I need to use it differently.

In a word, I’m domesticating Facebook, altering my usage of it so that it fits better into my life, and aligns better to my stated social values. Instead of knee-jerk reactions that decry how Facebook is ruining our youth, we need to be encouraging each other to do this hard work of self-examination, being honest with ourselves about our personal vulnerabilities and the ways in which the devices and systems we use might be exacerbating those. For some, Facebook might pose little problem, but for others, some changes are probably in order. Let’s get to it.

Patterns of Use

Ashen CrossDid you give something up for Lent this year? This is that time of year when many Christians choose to give up something in order to sharpen their attention in preparation for Easter. I’ve observed this tradition haphazardly in the past, but this year I decided to experiment with giving up something that I have lately been feeling a little to addicted to: Facebook.

I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook lately. Google’s Chrome web browser shows you a list of your most-visited web sites when you open a new tab, and Facebook has been at the top of that list for some time now. Like many people, I tend to check Facebook several times a day, whenever I’m feeling bored or have a little time to kill. I enjoy being able to keep up on the lives of my friends, many of whom are scattered far away from my little corner of the world. I love reading their pithy comments, seeing pictures of their kids, reading what they found interesting, and laughing along with them at the never-ending stream of funny pictures that quickly spread through the social network.

But I’ve noticed over the years that the way I use Facebook has changed a few times. When I first joined in 2007, I mostly used it to reconnect with old college and high school friends. I would run across someone I used to know, friend them, and then exchange a few private messages to find out how their life turned out.

That worked well for a while, but then I had to figure out what to post on my own profile. Early posts were scans of old photos and bad attempts at being witty, but I soon settled into posting what I was making for dinner that night, and providing the corresponding recipe as a note. My profile quickly became a sort of cookbook, and some of my friends started to reciprocate.

I eventually ran out of recipes, however, and as I became friends with more and more people from various peripheral areas of my life, I began to pay attention to how my posts would make me look to these people who were really more like acquaintances or work colleagues than personal friends. In our social lives, we tend to project slightly different versions of ourselves to different groups, wearing costumes and projecting personalities that allow us to fit better into those contexts. The same is true on Facebook, which is why they’ve been trying to make it easier to group your friends and post some things to one group, but not to others. But it’s still way too easy to make a mistake and post something you’d rather not share with that prospective employer or those highly-conservative relatives.

Since Facebook’s grouping features have been fairly difficult to use so far (this is one area that Google+ really did much better), I chose instead to restrict my posts to only those things that I felt comfortable sharing with everyone. Now I tend to share only news articles that I found particularly interesting (and not too controversial), and links to my own blog posts.

When I reflect on all of this, I see something interesting. Through my usage, I’ve made Facebook into three different kinds of tools: a global directory for reconnection; a social recipe exchange; and a mechanism for shameless self-promotion. When I look at what my friends tend to post, I see even more distinct kinds of use: asking for advice; recruiting volunteers; communicating with students; organizing events and reunions; and providing space for dialog about a current issues (though that last one rarely seems to go well).

Notice that all of these patterns of use go beyond the shallow forms of sharing and socializing that critics of Facebook assume is the only possible use of the service. While it is true that Facebook might encourage its customers to use the service in a particular sort of way, it does not completely determine how any particular person might use it. The distinction is important. It is the difference between thinking of technologies as unstoppable forces that have one-way impacts on culture, and thinking of them as having a certain degree of “interpretive flexibility.” If that flexibility exists, humans are surprisingly good at taking advantage of it, bending the technology towards their own values, desires, and intentions.

Admittedly, some artifacts have very few possible patterns of use: atomic weapons and birth control pills are interesting examples. Although their underlying techniques might be used for multiple purposes, these finished artifacts almost dictate their own usage, and carry with them a particular set of values. Atomic weapons can be used to deter or attack, but they cannot reasonably be used for demolition or tunneling like dynamite can. And lest we not forget, dynamite is also a really effective tool for fishing!

So how do you use Facebook? Have you found ways to use it that go beyond sharing and socializing?

Catfish

A few weeks ago, two different sets of friends within as many days recommended that I watch the movie “Catfish.” I had never heard of it, but the summary sounded intriguing, so I put it on the Netflix queue and watched it a few nights ago. I loved it, and if you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Here’s the trailer:

It is difficult to discuss this film without giving too much away, but I will try to keep my comments vague enough so that I don’t ruin it for those who haven’t watched it yet. The film follows a relationship that develops between Nev, a 20-something photographer in New York, and various members of a family living in a small town in upper-peninsula Michigan. The filmmakers are Nev’s brother and friend, who all share an office.

The relationship begins when Nev receives an unsolicited painting in the mail that is a recreation of one of his published photographs. The note with the painting says that it was created by an eight-year-old girl, Abby, who Nev then friends on Facebook in order to thank her. Over time, more paintings arrive, and Nev becomes Facebook friends with more of Abby’s family, including a 19-year-old sister who begins to flirt with him. Their relationship begins to deepen after Nev talks with the older sister on the phone, and they soon develop an online romance through text messages and Facebook.

As you might expect (and as the summary and trailer reveal), Nev soon starts noticing things about this girl and her family that don’t quite add up, so he decides to go to Michigan unannounced to meet her. This is where the surprises start unfolding, and where I will end my summary so that you can watch it for yourself.

File:Internet dog.jpgI don’t think it would give away too much to say that this film reminded me of a classic New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, first published in 1993 (left). It shows two dogs, one typing away on a computer keyboard and saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It nicely captures the ways in which non-visual communication media allow users to play with their identities, projecting themselves online as something completely different from what they are in “real life.” When you interact with someone via Facebook who you have never actually met in person, there is little assurance that the other person is who he or she claims to be (after all, we all project an idealized version of ourselves online). In fact, there really is little assurance that the other is person is a actually a person, and not an autonomous computer program created to simulate human discourse (otherwise known as a “bot”).

I have yet to read reports of a “bot” posing as a Facebook user, but there are a few interesting historical examples of people having significant conversations with such programs. The most famous example is ELIZA, created by MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. ELIZA was programmed to emulate a psychotherapist, responding to a user’s textual input with questions designed to encourage the user to explicate and push deeper into whatever the user was discussing. For example, if a user typed “my mother is making me angry,” the program would respond with “tell me more about your mother,” which would encourage the user to reveal private details about the nature of the relationship. Some users were surprised and hurt to discover that ELIZA was simply a computer program, but even many of those who knew it was a program still interacted with it as if it was a psychotherapist, telling it their deepest and darkest secrets.

But all of this must be balanced with an interesting Pew research report that was published today. The researchers wanted to test some of the standard negative claims being made about social networking systems like Facebook. They designed a survey to investigate two related questions: “Do these technologies isolate people and truncate their relationships? Or are there benefits associated with being connected to others in this way?”

Interestingly, the study found that Internet users, and Facebook users in particular, were more likely to be politically engaged, have more close friendships, and receive more emotional and tangible support from their friends when in need. Obviously, as with any popular survey, some of this must be taken with a large grain of salt, but I was particularly impressed with the increased tangible support that Internet users tended to receive. Tangible support, such as bringing someone meals or giving them money, requires real sacrifice and risk, which is something that many technology critics think is absent, or even incapable, from online relationships.

The report also details the average composition of the respondent’s Facebook friend networks. Nearly 90% of the respondent’s Facebook friends were people they had met in-person more than once, 3% were people they had met only once, and only 7% were people they had never actually met in-person. Assuming that some of those 7% are famous artists, authors, or personalities that the respondents admire, these findings indicate that people are using Facebook predominantly to stay in-touch with people they already know offline, and not to meet new people online.

How do you use Facebook, and what sort of benefits have your experienced by being connected with people online as well as offline? Are you Facebook friends with people you have never actually met in-person? If so, how would each of you find the other different from your respective Facebook selves?