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Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

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Let's Put the Media Back in Social Media

Posted: 05/31/2012 1:33 pm

Unless you've been living under a rock -- or well, Facebook bubble -- the last few years, you've heard the story of the woman that posted suicidal thoughts on Facebook and ended up killing herself, uninterceped by her "friends."

Unfortunately, that was no solitary case.

Stories of people airing depressive thoughts on social media that go unmet with due compassion abound.

Such incidents rival only Stephen Marche's compelling opener in a controversial (is there another kind?) Atlantic cover story, which sets out to prove that online interactions, exemplified by sites like Facebook, are making us lonelier than ever, fueling a spate of worrisome articles questioning our judgment about relationships in this social media-dominated world. Opening with the story of Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate whose death in her LA apartment remained undiscovered for months, Marche makes the case that loneliness in America and the western world in general is increasing. Even while our online networks continue to grow, the number of real confidants or trusted friends we have is decreasing, Marche says.

Marche is by no means alone in this conviction. Sherry Turkle, the MIT researcher who has studied the effects of technology on human interaction for years, makes a similar point. She says that the obsession with digital "connection" (manifested by everything from texting at the dinner table to constantly updating our Facebook statuses) has taken away from real-world conversations and engagements.

What Marche and Turkle seem to assert, however, is that the two are somehow mutually exclusive, that the very existence of our online friends reflects a lack of real ones.

Intelligent users of social media know that a Facebook chat or a Twitter mention neither implies nor displaces real conversation. They are merely supplements -- and sometimes prequels -- to other conversations we have in our real lives. As Matthew Ingram points out, social media allows us to meet "real" people, be it via tweets, Foursquare check-ins, or any number of geosocial networks out there -- and often these are people we wouldn't otherwise encounter in our lives.

For the number of minutes Facebook sucks out of our lives that could arguably be better spent developing our offline interactions, it also helps create real-life gatherings, informing us of an event we may want to be at, alerting us to real causes we may care about, and reminding us of friendships we may be ignoring.

How many times have you clicked on a long-forgotten friend that popped up on your friends collage to see what they were up to and hurriedly typed off a hello? In its own self-obsessed, absent-minded, fast-paced manner, Facebook finds ways to make those two minutes for us to catch up with acquaintances.

Never mind that it's not the same way we are used to.

Perhaps these social media worriers worry because they exaggerate the purposes of these online platforms, at the same time attributing to it the one-dimensional function of maintaining personal relationships.

Citing a Twitter study which concluded that links made on Twitter are meaningless from an interaction point of view, Marche wonders what other point of view is meaningful. Life saving and history turning, perhaps? Surely, the social media that prevents escalating casualties during terrorist attacks, propagates civilian revolutions against dictatorships, and allows us to express our outrage over the death penalty could have purposes other than mere companionship?

Are we taking social media terms much too literally? My Facebook "friend" (especially one I've never met in real life) is not a friend in the real sense of the word, and when I "like" something on Facebook, it is more often to get news and updates on a particular topic or organization, rather than unconditionally liking it.

They are called social media for a reason -- they are not so much social communities as they are sources of information and platforms for communication.

This is yet another case of trying to blame technology for problems that have more to do with people's choices than the media that deliver them to us. And this is not new. We did this with online games, television sets and the telephone before it. Somehow they all "took away" from the real thing when they announced themselves to the world.

As Going Solo author Eric Klinenberg says in his refutation of the Atlantic piece, the phone didn't stop people from knocking on doors. It just made people call before knocking. If that was true then with Alexander Bell's creation, it is true today with Mark Zuckerberg's multi-million dollar enterprise.

To blame Facebook for not having real friends in life is sort of like blaming the Internet for not having books in your home. They serve two different purposes and one doesn't automatically nullify the other.

As Marche himself goes on to point out, correlation is not causation. "The popular kids are popular, and the lonely skulkers skulk alone," he writes about interactions on Facebook.

So Facebook is merely offering an "out" for those who don't have healthy, established social connections in real life and allowing them to create pseudo-ones, which may not necessarily be a bad thing -- for common sense says that it is probably better to have some kind of connection to people rather than none at all. Facebook isn't doing anything to break relationships you already have, neither is it destroying already existing tendencies to go out into the real world and make friends.

The problem with Facebook and other social media is not that they are preventing us from investing in our real relationships, but that they make us obsess over carefully-edited versions of ourselves that we then put forth to the world. It is this compulsive need to present ourselves a certain way to our social media followers that we should worry about.

Writing about this fixation with self presentation and social bounty, Marche quotes Jaron Lanier, father of virtual reality, "we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us."

And that is a more legitimate worry. Through our social media prisms, we are taking our presentation of self further and further away from the real one: who we are, what we do, what we like, what we dislike, who our friends are, and what groups we belong to. All of them combine to create a carefully-curated personality that we want the world to see. This may be a happier, more successful version of our selves, or a veritable reality show unfolding on our Facebook pages. But it is almost always far from the truth.

I take pictures for the mere act of posting them on Twitter. I don't go back and look at them, I don't reminisce and spend a minute to enjoy the memory. It exists for my Twitter followers, not me. As does a Facebook album, a Foursquare check-in.

Social media has put such a premium on broadcasting our actions that the actions themselves seem less important. My Twitter-obsessed friend once said to me, "I don't feel like I've done something until I've tweeted about it." Twitter and Facebook are redefining what it means to do anymore.

And the place where this hurts the most is in our real contributions to society. Where the social web should worry us is when we satisfy our good samaritanism with symbolism rather than real action. With every online petition and Facebook-sharing of that petition, social work is turning into social media work. Here again, the media shouldn't be blamed as much as our choices. Online petitions have done their fair share to right the wrongs, as change.org demonstrates. But social media makes it easier to say I've done my part by clicking a button.

And living in our fragmented communities generated by the Internet doesn't make this any easier to combat. We voice our thoughts on Facebook and Twitter to friends and followers likely thousands of miles away, not knowing what our neighbors are up to, or what our real community needs.

Again, it's important to remember these are media, not communities. They can spread the message, but real people are likely needed to deliver on it.

 

Follow Karthika Muthukumaraswamy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KarthikaM

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