Thanks to the internet, life has been made incredibly easy in the last decade. Families living on opposite sides of the world can stay in contact, we can share pictures of adventures that happened minutes beforehand and a simple hash-tag can start a global revolution. This is in no small part due to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter that describe themselves as ‘social utilities’ providing instant connection to the people and things most important to you.
But has their unprecedented success made them more social necessities than mediums?
Psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle thinks so. In her talk ‘Connected but Alone?’ she questions whether the recent boom in social networking sites has led to a lack of effort to form and maintain real relationships. The bright lights of Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn, have blinded us to the consequences of this social revolution. She asks whether, as we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other?
Turkle expands on this idea in a New York Times article, suggesting what we value most is control over where we focus our attention. Texting, emailing, Tweeting, and posting allow us to present the person we want to be in a controlled social environment, giving as much of ourselves away as we want and maintaining a friendship without ever having to get too close. The desire to have relationships without stepping out of our perfectly presented bubble means that “we sacrifice conversation for mere connection.” The ability to edit, delete and recreate ourselves is damaging. Stories about people becoming depressed at the comparison of their real life with their friends’ publicised ones are not uncommon. Social nervousness is becoming a real issue for many people who feel that the social networking stage has set the bar too high on personalities. How could anyone possibly compete with the allure of the iPhone with all that ‘enhanced socialising’ at the touch of a button? Surely, then, we should question the benefit of social networking sites and their ironic ability to damage social interaction.
However, many would argue social networking sites have proved themselves to be socially beneficial in recent events. The Arab Spring last year, for example, was heavily aided by social media. According to the Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government, both Facebook and Twitter “played a critical role in mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions and influencing change.” Almost 9 in 10 Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed in March 2011 said they were using Facebook to organise protests and all but one of the protests called for on the site ended up coming to life on the streets. The Twitter hash-tag ‘Egypt had 1.4 million mentions during the first three months of 2011 and others, such as ‘Jan25′ had 1.2m mentions.
Social networking has created a platform not only for those instigating social reform to get their voices heard, but for those wanting to show they are in support. We would all like to change the world but the reality of degrees and jobs prevents many of us from being able to make a difference. Yet Facebook pages and Twitter hash-tags have provided a quick, easy and, above all, effective way of drawing attention to issues and uniting the masses. The ‘Kony 2012′ internet campaign to find and detain the Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, had huge success. The initial film posted on YouTube received over 86 million views in its first three weeks. It trended on Twitter and had multiple Facebook groups created in response, including a Warwick University branch. Although it has yet to achieve its ultimate aim, and it’s founder has been somewhat disgraced, the campaign achieved political milestones in the United States Senate through its ability to channel the opinion of millions who care, but have no idea how to show it. The sites must, therefore, be commended for the ease with which such movements have been generated and promoted.
The concern is with the more subtle implications of these sites. John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University says that “technology makes some people forget the distinction between private and public spaces.” These sites have become breeding grounds for law suits because people treat the spaces like they would a private conversation. It is precisely this attitude, this reliance upon technology to express ourselves that has made us forget what real life and real human interaction can offer.
Social interaction is the corner stone of human existence. According to Dr Andrew Jackson of Trinity College Dublin, it has been key to the evolution of human intelligence. Socialising has produced larger, more intelligent brains and consequently, given us the arts, languages, science, everything around us. Our ability to interact and engage with each other deserves more respect than the occasional internet update, it deserves and requires one on one, face to face.
Aristotle once said that a friend to all is a friend to none. Relationships aren’t always interesting; they’re messy, complicated, confusing and, most importantly, the conversations happen in real time. Discussions are muddled, points are half made, forgotten and you only come up with the punchline to that joke two days later. That’s the beauty of them: they take effort and patience.
A character in ‘The Simpsons’ once said that the best ice cream is the hardest to scoop. For too long people have been picking out the cookie pieces of our personalities and letting the good stuff that surrounds it go to waste. It’s about time we sat down, face to face, and ate the whole tub.
Social networking sites do provide a fantastic arena for debate, persuasion and protest on unprecedented scales. There is no denying their usefulness in organising events that don’t have an address book. They are also indispensable ways of keeping in touch with those people who have a habit of disappearing, who frequently lose their mobile phones and never check their email account – Facebook and Twitter somehow avoid this detachment. Fundamentally, for us students, they offer invaluable opportunities and windows into the job market. They are practical, convenient and versatile but they are not absolute. Unless we are to value perfection over authenticity, convenience over fulfilment, and pictures over experiences, we should spend less time Tweeting and more time talking.