In Case You Missed It: I Am One with Social Media

12/28/2012 01:02 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Amber Case's TEDTalk, "We are all cyborgs now," has garnered more than one-half million views, but the case for her argument is worth examining.

"I would like to tell you all that you are all actually cyborgs, but not the cyborgs that you think," the anthropologist begins, "... you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or one of your cellphone devices." Case launches her argument from a traditional space travel cyborg definition of "exogenous components... added for the purpose of adapting to new environments."

As a "cyborg anthropologist," Case studies culture and "curious rituals" of our desire to look at screens and click on stimuli, new tools and "extension of self." Case suggests: "Now what we are looking at is not an extension of the physical self, but an extension of the mental self."

Case sees, for example, our Facebook walls as "a second self" that allow people to interact when you are not there. Her "worry" is that an open wall allows people to write on it in the middle of the night, and that we must learn to present our "second self" online. The cellphone, in Case's view is a "techno-social wormhole" that allows us to bend time and space through "compression." Case says "ambient intimacy" describes that act of constantly checking smartphones. The result, Case argues, is that we are left to respond rather than stop down for quiet reflection, which would lead to more careful presentation of the "second self" in "a more legitimate way." Case's negative view of the technology focuses on her worry about development of young people. The paradox in her talk, however, is that Case ends on the optimistic note that technology is extending and "increasing our humanness."

Communication scholars have been examining computer-mediated communication (CMC) and cybercultures for two decades, and the Internet paradox is not new. David Bell's An Introduction to Cybercultures (2001), for example, examines how cyberculture "reworks" community and boundaries through three types of storytelling: material stories, symbolic stories and experiential stories. "I would argue that it does exist -- maybe not in terms of hardware and software -- but certainly in terms of story-telling" (p. 7). Stories are central to how humans make meaning and sense of the world around them. Far from presenting Case's "second self," we present online identities that may or may not be as real as our face-to-face communication, which also reflects a presentation of self.

Steven Jones' Cybersociety 2.0 (1998) was an early attempt to understand online communication and community. "Whereas it is true that the Internet overcomes distance, in some ways it also overcomes proximity," Jones wrote, "We may eschew some forms of proximal communication (chatting in the hallway at work, for instance) for ones that distance us (as we concentrate on the computer screen and not our environs), even as these technologies make distance seem meaningless" (p. xiii). Drawing from the community optimism of Howard Rheingold and the cultural clarity of James Carey, Jones placed CMC "between the two poles of production and reproduction" (p. 9).

Erik Bucy's Living in the Information Age (2005) is a wonderful reader that explores the many twists and turns of our struggle to orient to the technological world. "Information technologies and entertainment media literally saturate modern life to the point where it has become difficult to imagine life without them" (p. 1). This is because, as John Pavlik and Shawn McIntosh observe in the reader, digital media like their earlier brethren can be described through audience, feedback, function, content, regulation, storytelling and distribution channels (p. 71).

In Leah Lievrouw and Sonia Livingstone's The Handbook of New Media (2006) the network as metaphor is important: "Networks in this sense depart from the hierarchical, one-way distribution configurations typically associated with mass society, mass production and consumption, and mass media" (p. 5). The result, they observe is "ubiquity" and "interactivity," which is a reasonable way to explain why we are motivated to keep checking Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites.

Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock's Communities in Cyberspace (1999) may have been correct in the emphasis on the nature of computer-based social networks. Through these we cannot only come to better understand identity, but also "honesty and deception" (p. 9). The paradox for us is that online communities may reflect both opportunities for sparking social change, as we saw with the Arab Spring and the recent online debate about guns, but also efforts to manage social control through public relations efforts of governments, corporations and interest groups. As Pramod Nayar's The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology (2010) offers, "The cyborg -- or the posthuman -- invokes both pleasure and terror" (p. 8).

I like what Adriana de Souza e Sliva (2007) calls "hybrid spaces" in David Bell and Barbara Kennedy's The Cybercultures Reader:

"Mobile phones transgress this traditional relationship with the Internet because they are able to embed the Internet in public spaces... When a mobile interface knows where it is in physical space, it automatically acquires a different meaning... Internet capability added to location awareness allows users to have a unique relationship with physical space... Changing our experience of space means not only interacting in new ways with other people but also redefining the space in which we live." (pp. 767-768)

I do not see how this supports Amber Case's argument that we have become cyborgs managing second selves. Instead, I think the vast communication and culture literature speaks to convergence and integration of new tools into a malleable set of social rules. Like pen pals, landlines and citizen band radio before, cyberculture is about navigating social spaces through use of new tools. In this way, sociologist Erving Goffman more than 50 years ago understood performer presentation of social self as an idealized and incomplete construction. We go to school, work and parties and present ourselves, just as we do this online. Both are representations of human communication.

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