Doing “Social” on the Net

Whenever a new technology becomes an integral part of human life, we may naturally wonder whether it will change our nature in addition to our lifestyle.

When the telephone was introduced, for instance, there were those who mused about its potential effects on social life as well as privacy. Would it make people more lazy? Create a faster-paced society? Would it interfere in family life or keep people from visiting friends face-to-face? Some observers concluded that these early social concerns were at least partly justified. The telephone, they suggested, may have connected people in one sense, but it also evoked “a palpable emptiness across which voices seemed uniquely disembodied and remote” (Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918).

Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’ No, one should open conversations with phrases such as ‘Mr. Wood, of Curtis and Sons, wishes to talk with Mr. White. . .’ without any unnecessary and undignified ‘Hello’s.’”

Article on Telephone Etiquette, printed in AT&T Telephone Directories circa 1910 (Quoted by Claude S. Fischer, America Calling)

Whether or not the telephone really did create a sense of emotional distance, such concerns persisted, as did questions about whether this new social technology might lead to breaches in personal security. According to one “social history of the telephone,” the instrument presented a number of privacy concerns: “Messages come unbidden; background sounds reveal intimacies of the home to the caller; speakers cannot prepare for or reflect upon the discussion as they can in letters; callers’ voices are disembodied from context” (Claude S. Fischer, America Calling).

From Phone to Facebook

Today we debate almost identical concerns about the Internet, particularly over the past decade as a wide variety of social network services and other forms of social media have come on the scene. Are online social networks making us lazy? Uncontrollably compromising our privacy? Are they interfering in our relationships and changing the very nature of intimacy in fundamental ways?

In a book that portrays a decidedly dystopian vision of social technology, psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle writes, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities” (Alone Together). Echoing others’ concerns about the telephone, she writes that “our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.” And growing up tethered in this way, she suggests, “tempts [us] into narcissistic ways of relating.”

Many would agree with this notion, and certainly there is no shortage of narcissistic behavior visible in online interactions. But is it “our networked life” that tempts us into it? And is this condition new to the Internet age? New-media researcher Alex Lambert proposes that arguments such as these stem from a false dichotomy—the sort of simple, black-and-white construct that doesn’t require us to disengage our brain’s automatic pilot in search of nuance or complexity. Those who see narcissism as the peculiar bedfellow of social networking, he argues, see life in terms of “private” versus “public,” believing that intimate relationships can be nurtured only through private interactions. Only those with whom we are truly intimate can be called real friends, the assumption goes, and since we can be truly intimate with only a handful of people, the acquaintances that make up our communities aren’t really friends. “Public friendship” is seen as an oxymoron, says Lambert, so we are led to simplistic conclusions about whether public platforms for social relationships are therefore inherently good or bad. If we have large networks of public connections, we must by extension be narcissistic or misunderstand true friendship.

However, asks Lambert, “is it either private intimacy, or public community? No in-between? Can we discover more nuanced, contextual, multifaceted understandings of public sociality which move beyond this limited dichotomy?”

It isn’t only social critics who cling to dichotomies, of course; we endorse them almost as a matter of course in daily life. If we aren’t happy, we must be sad; if we aren’t extroverted, we must be introverted. If we aren’t full, we must still be hungry.

Detox your life by clearing out fake friends, dead-end jobs, and players posing as life partners,” said a recent post circulating on Facebook. “There is no such thing as neutral people,” the author commented; “they either move you forward or hold you back!”

Social networks . . . are always there, exerting both subtle and dramatic influence over our choices, actions, thoughts, feelings, even our desires.”

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected

On the surface, this sounds perfectly reasonable, and it’s packed with just the sort of black-and-white constructs that appeal to the brain’s automatic processes. It’s easy to assume that if someone isn’t a close friend, he must be less than desirable. Or that if we encounter difficulties in our job or relationships, our only option must be to leave in search of something better.

A moment’s thought exposes the fallacy in both assumptions and, by the same token, in the assumption that there can be “no such thing” as a neutral person in one’s life. To assume that the people in your social network can only be moving you forward or holding you back surely requires focusing only on how they affect your goals and ends—a perspective, by the way, that reeks of narcissism even though it calls for curtailing public friends rather than collecting them. Just as there are valid reasons for taking steps to improve patterns of relating at home or work before walking away, so there is something to be said for offering support and friendship to those who need you more than you need them. As sociologists have been telling us for decades, there are benefits to casual and even latent social ties that have little to do with what we may seem on the surface to be getting out of the connection. For instance, having latent ties may increase what researchers call “bridging” social capital, connecting us with those who can offer help in a job change or in finding information that hasn’t yet permeated our network of stronger social ties. And we may provide similar benefits in return.

Negotiating New Technologies

That we are vulnerable to false dichotomies, squishy ethics and narcissistic ways of relating is an inescapable fact of human life. So if these traps and others can be found in abundance on the Internet, it’s likely because they are first found in equal abundance offline—as a side effect of being human.

Giving weight to this possibility, Fischer argues against a form of “technological determinism” in which people assume that the characteristics of objects such as cars and telephones are transferred onto the people who use them. Fischer points out that this line of reasoning requires us to believe a metaphor has sprung to life. Yes, it’s possible that the telephone’s urgent intrusion into the quiet sanctity of the home might imprint people with a sense of urgency, anxiety and helplessness. But “the telephone might also promote calm because its calls reassure us that our appointments are set and our loved ones are safe.”

Of course, there are certainly times when the telephone’s urgent ring is intrusive, but media sociologist Deborah Chambers suggests that the addition of new media has brought a stronger sense of control: we now have the option to lead up to more intimate forms of connection through initially less-demanding means. Texting, Facebooking and other types of messaging have a considerate and unobtrusive aspect, she writes, which allows users to plan their telephone discussions for a time that suits both parties. Different technologies are also used for different social purposes, she argues, giving us the ability to make finer distinctions as we decide whether and when to grant others social access to us through more intimate means.

Even so, new technologies are bound to present challenges to our sense of control—concerning our social privacy or appropriate social behavior toward others, for instance. With each new technology, we are faced with the need to learn new ways of managing these challenges. Often we do this through new rules of etiquette, which evolve over time as each new challenge becomes apparent. By the time they do, we have no choice but to acknowledge that we’ve been here before. One need only substitute the word Internet for telephone in the following statements, cited by Fischer, to understand this point perfectly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Telephone,” began a 1910 Bell advertisement. It concluded: “The marvelous growth of the Bell System has made use of the telephone universal and misuse a matter of public concern.”

I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be as Courteous and Considerate over the Telephone as if Face to Face,” went “The Telephone Pledge” circulated by the phone company.

Perhaps not every rule of etiquette translates so well between technologies (“Speak directly into the mouthpiece keeping mustache out of the opening,” recommended one telephone instruction manual); but the fundamental concerns don’t change appreciably. The Golden Rule—the biblical concept of favoring others with the same treatment we expect—remains the key to successfully negotiating any new social technology.

Most of us are already aware of the direct effect we have on our friends and family; our actions can make them happy or sad, healthy or sick, even rich or poor. But we rarely consider that everything we think, feel, do, or say can spread far beyond the people we know.”  

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler Connected

This is where we often find the rub, of course. The social logic of each specific technological space where we interact may not be immediately apparent. How will a technology be used, and where will it fit in our social lives? How public or private will it be? This makes a huge difference to how we use it. Just as we might logically express ourselves with more reserve in restaurants or public squares than we might with intimate friends in our own “squares” at home, some online spaces call for regularly reminding ourselves that we are exposed to a wider or simply a different public.

Private and Public Personas

Unfortunately, the more careless aspects of our nature may trip us up occasionally before we begin to understand the full social implications of each emerging technology. But as we become familiar with the privacy limitations of online spaces, we can begin to learn how to apply the Golden Rule, even when the line between our private and public social connections seems fuzzy.

One example of this type of learning can be seen in the evolution of social norms related to publishing photographs on Facebook. Emily Post didn’t find it necessary to include chapters on photo-sharing in previous editions of her popular etiquette books, but her descendents, who have continued her legacy, have had to roll with some fairly big technological changes in their lifetimes. Emily’s great-great-grandson Daniel Post Senning is described as an “early adopter” of technology, so the rest of the family considered him the obvious choice to write Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online. As his cousin Anna writes in the book’s foreword, “We’re still figuring out which digital manners we need, and learning the consequences of living without them.”

Chapter 8 is devoted entirely to photo-sharing, beginning with several basic rules: “Respect copyrights. Never take a photo without someone’s knowledge. Always ask the subject’s permission before posting a picture. . . . Never post a picture that could be embarrassing to someone, now or in the future. . . . Never post or tag pictures of other people’s children without parental permission.”

Tagging, for those unfamiliar with the practice, is an electronic way of putting names to faces in online photos. Before tagging anyone, Senning emphasizes, “it is a good idea to ask yourself, ‘If I were this person, how would I feel having this image in the public domain?’ Then use a standard that is even a bit more stringent than the one you would apply for yourself. . . . If someone asks you to untag a picture or take it down, you should do so right away.”

In the pre-Internet era, we might have put almost any party photo in a personal album on our coffee table without asking permission of anyone depicted in it; the chances would be slim that anyone in the nether regions of their social circles might see it. But then, in our offline dealings we have far more control over which of our social circles is privy to which parts of our lives. Different levels of friendship can be kept neatly separated, and we dole out information to each as we see fit.

In contrast, although online technologies offer a variety of filtering options, many social groups overlap on our Facebook walls. It may be helpful to think of a Facebook wall in terms of a town square rather than a backyard party. You might not mind Great-Aunt Mathilda reminding you privately about the dinner party when you ate so much that three of your shirt buttons popped off, but you probably wouldn’t want her to bring up the story in front of that cute girl from work. Clearly, practicing the Golden Rule in the public context of online social networks requires careful sensitivity to the diversity of our audiences—and our friends’ audiences—along with an understanding of what might be offensive to whom.

Understanding the extent of that diversity could also help us work toward a more integrated identity, perhaps helping us to define who we are more consistently. Are we kind and patient and resilient in all our social circles? Or self-centered and paranoid? Research suggests that our personal strengths and failings come across loud and clear in our online personas.

Nevertheless, some have worried that online social networks such as Facebook might tempt us to present a carefully constructed identity to the world, resulting in the loss of the authentic self rather than in a more integrated identity. But as Lambert points out, “Facebook users do not enjoy limitless control over their self-presentations”; your mother, cousin, and friends from school are connected to you on Facebook, but they may also be connected to one another offline. This “biographical public” knows who you are, which acts as a “normalising force,” suggests Lambert. This may be why research repeatedly finds that Facebook profiles tend to match up fairly well to users’ actual personalities rather than to some idealized self-presentation.

Some worry, however, that this might be a problem for young people who are still discovering who they are. If multiple circles, each a normalizing force in its own right, now make up a single audience, will identity formation stagnate? Lambert quotes one researcher, who says that “instead of being able to experiment with multiple identities, young people often find themselves having to present a constrained, unitary identity to multiple audiences, audiences that might have been separate in the past.” Of course, this supposes that we have always had the luxury of multiple audiences where we could try on separate identities. What about when our circles were much smaller, less segregated by age, and less mobile? Could it actually be helpful for young people to have normalizing forces that guide them toward an integrated sense of who they are?

Relationships, Online and Off

Some of the challenges presented by online social networks may not be as new as we think. Long before Facebook, social commentators predicted that each new age would spell the death of both intimacy and social cohesion. Certainly we lost some things when we moved from rural communities to urban centers, even as we gained others. Likewise, potential pitfalls come with new social technologies, but perhaps in some ways they have brought us full circle—back to a position where we might pause before saying or doing something in public that Aunt Mathilda wouldn’t approve, because once again, there’s a very real possibility it may get back to her. Our comings and goings are no longer as invisible as they were under the big city’s cloak of anonymity, when Aunt Mathilda was safely back home on the farm and not our Facebook friend.

Of course, there are still many social arenas that aren’t as public as Facebook, both online and off. The Internet hasn’t killed our desire for intimate, private relationships, say researchers; we still pursue them vigorously. In fact, studies have found that Internet users tend to be even more connected to their offline relationships than nonusers. Nor have we lost the concept of community. Both notions have always been with us, and it’s beginning to appear that they always will be, because we are driven to connect. We’ll do it with whatever tools are at our disposal. We are nothing if not social beings; the thought of being entirely alone in the world is unfathomable to us. And given what we know about what makes a healthy mind, it should be.

As much as we need human interaction, however, it should be noted that not everyone will want to use technology in the service of it. We all have different preferences for fulfilling this fundamental need, and even different comfort levels when it comes to pursuing it in new contexts. Some contexts may even be problematic for certain people; for instance, those who are vulnerable to addiction can be as vulnerable to the neurochemical fix offered by their devices as they are to gambling or other pleasurable activities.

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”  

Matthew 7:12, English Standard Version

In whatever context we choose to pursue it, the natural consequence of our need to connect is that we affect one another, whether positively or negatively, and this, rather than the technologies we use, is what lies at the crux of our social issues. When we have fragile communities, it’s because we haven’t taken the time to nurture our friendships, or because we have fallen into negative ways of relating. We are as vulnerable to these problems when we interact face-to-face as we are when we connect over any technology at our disposal, and they have long repercussions—not only to our mental health as individuals but to our collective health as a society.

If we hope to use technology constructively, we might concentrate on using online social networks as a practice arena for learning public social skills, just as siblings or play dates serve as practice arenas for toddlers to learn intimate or one-on-one social skills. The purpose of connecting with others, whether online or off, is to foster positive relationships. As tempting as it may be to blame technology when we fail to do this, the evidence suggests that we are rather more personally the architects of our own destruction. It only takes a cursory glance back at our history to confirm that we always have been.