Mission Impossible?: Fitting the Techno-Social Landscape of Our Lives into Neat Little Boxes

What can science really tell us about the complex roles of social media, technology, and computer-mediated communication in our social lives? It’s a question I’ve been increasingly asking myself.  As a scientist, my job is to deconstruct very complex phenomena into understandable components, put things in neat, little, over-simplified boxes so that we can actually begin to understand something in systematic, replicable ways. Don’t get me wrong. I love science and think the tools of science are still the best we have available to us. But there are also limitations to these tools.

In particular, I think we haven’t even begun to wrap our heads around how all the technologies we use to augment our social lives work together to create a unique social experience. For example, the social context of texting is very different from that of Facebook which is very different from the social context of blogging, etc,… Simply studying the number of hours a given person uses social media or some type of communication technology is not going to tell you a lot about that person’s life. A given person may be on Facebook 12 hours a week, avoid texting and talking on the phone,  listen to all their music on Spotify, troll YouTube videos  5 hours a week, video chat 12 times a week, and the list goes on. It seems to me that the experience of all these media, TOGETHER, makes up our full techno-social landscape; the gestalt of our lives.

So how do we start to understand each person’s unique profile of social technology use? One difference that could matter is that some of us are using technology that facilitates direct social connection and social networking (e.g., Facebook) whereas others are using technology that are more like digital analogs to the phone (e.g., texting). It probably also matters whether these technology augment or take the place of face-to-face interactions. There is an interesting post on the dailydoug blog that includes discussion of these kinds of differences.

I’m also starting to think it’s not so much the explicit social interactions we have via technology (e.g., commenting on someone’s status update on Facebook) but rather, it’s the degree to which we use technology to transport ourselves into a connected state of consciousness.  I actually think this applies to any technology – we probably all have used books, music, TV and other things to transport our consciousness and feel more connected to something bigger than ourselves. But in the case of mobile technology and social media, the nature of the game has changed in a fundamental way – communication is completely portable, deeply social, extremely fast, and set up in such a way that we feel “disconnected” if we don’t constantly check our devices.

So, how do we unpack the complex profiles of our technology use and the key role these technologies play in our sense of connection with others? What are the patterns? Are there patterns that are problematic or helpful in terms of making us all happier (and isn’t that the only thing that really matters?)? If a pattern is problematic, can we tweak it so that it becomes healthy? Are there optimal patterns for certain types of people? How can we take into account that while two people might both use Facebook 3 hours a day, they might respond to this experience completely differently (e.g., some people feel more depressed  after using Facebook because of all the social comparisons that make us feel lacking; many others just feel happy and more connected)? Are there certain combinations of technology use and face-to-face time that allow people to feel connected in a way that enriches without the burden of too many forms of communication to keep up with? I think technology burden is a deepening issue, and that many of us are starting to figure out the costs and benefits of our digitally-connected lives.

Why do I think this is so hard for Science to examine? Because it is very difficult to scientifically study non-linear phenomena – those processes that are not in the format of A influences B which in turn influences C. Instead, when you have individuals, each with a unique profile of technology use that makes up our social lives, along with all the subjective experiences and feelings that go along with it, you have a really interesting multi-level dynamic system. Sometimes when you deconstruct a system to understand its separate parts, you lose the whole. You know, the old, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In answer to my question, I don’t think this is a mission impossible. But I think it’s a mission that is incredibly rich and challenging. I’m up for trying and hope that I and others can find a way to honor these complexities by finding scientifically-valid “boxes” and approaches which are good enough to hold them.

Networked Individualism: Personal Agency Meets the Electronic Leash

I just started reading a book called “Networked: The New Social Operating System” by Lee Rainie  and Barry Wellman .  Many of you interested in social media have probably come across this book. The authors are leading authorities on the forefront of research that tracks how the internet and information technologies are being integrated into our lives.  They do large, survey-based studies and are clearly doing some of the best work of this type. They have significant resources behind them, including the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, of which Rainie is the director. So, they are able to do this work extremely well and on a large scale.

Rainie is a journalist with a background in political science, and Wellman is a professor of sociology. So, for me as a psychologist with a clinical and neuroscience background, their methods and perspectives are quite different from mine.  This makes reading about their research, and the conclusions they draw from it, very interesting but I often have lingering questions about what their data mean.

One of the major ideas this book puts forward is that of networked individualism. Barry Wellman’s website was very helpful in teasing this concept apart.  According to the notion of networked individualism, there has been a three-fold information technology revolution that has influenced how we function as individuals in society. First, was the personal internet, second the growth of mobile access, and third the predominance of computer-mediated social networks. Networked individualism is the outcome. It refers to our growing tendency to operate as individuals in a network rather than as group members. This means that social activities are organized around the individual rather than the family or neighborhood.  Each person has enhanced agency because they operate their own social network. Thus, individuals rather than groups are at the hub of social life.

Network vs. Group. What does it mean to function in a network like this, rather than in a group? It means, according to Rainie and Wellman, the following: we are more fragmented, maneuvering easily among networks; person-to-person contact becomes more important than meeting in groups or in a specific location; and we make decisions independently rather than via the group, but draw on our networks to seek relevant information. In essence, we are individuals surfing a vast and complex social web, and we have multiple “neighborhoods” comprised of the people we can text, tweet, email, and tag. These neighborhoods change according to our needs.

Families. Families, according to them, are also functioning more as a network than a group. We see each other less often than several decades ago, but actually are in closer communication due to mobile communication technologies (i.e., we’re emailing , texting, and calling each other a lot). Some have referred to the constant awareness that we can have of others as an electronic leash (Wellman, on his website, compares this to the ball and chain of the past).

So, reading this, I can’t help but picture busy family members texting and emailing all day, not getting home until late, missing the family dinner, and removing themselves to their respective rooms to get on their devices. I’m being silly here, and I don’t actually think this happens a lot (although I know from observation that some people’s family lives are much like this).

At the same time, the notion of the electronic leash is one that seems to be to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, we’re more connected. I like this in many ways. For example, being able to text my husband any little thought that enters my head  is awesome (particularly when it’s of the “don’t forget to….” variety). He’s less excited about that aspect of the technology I imagine. On the other hand, my expanded social network takes a lot of time to keep up with, and I feel, often, that I have less time for my family and close friends unless I’m very strict and let a lot of messages/texts/tweets just go. I also find sometimes that I get in a mode of texting or emailing things to my close family and friends rather than talking. That’s fine for the sake of efficiency much of the time, but I can’t help but feel that I’m losing out on something more satisfying and on what I think of as the alchemy of face-to-face conversations – the unpredictable creativity and clarity that can happen when you just have an old-fashioned conversation.

Costs and Benefits. There is no doubt in my mind that we benefit from the ease of communication and the speed of information access. Also, personally, I love the ability to do more, communicate more, find out more, more, more!!! But the irony is that these tools can easily create just as many demands on our time as they relieve.

Rainie and Wellman seem, from the tenure of their writing, to be really excited about these changes. They seem to be saying (and I should be careful here, because I haven’t read the entire book yet) that these changes are already happening – we’re becoming more disconnected in terms of our membership in groups, communities, and even the family. However, social media technologies are helping us maintain connection in the face of this change, and may even foster more face-to-face time and social support. In a nutshell, we no longer live in villages, so why are we bemoaning the fact that we don’t know our neighbors anymore? Instead, through social media, we are empowered to have extremely large, rich, and diverse social networks that we can draw on to find the social support that we need.

Moreover, according to them, we are shifting to internet-based communities rather than in-person groups. Networked individuals tend to move around fluidly from one network to another rather than having a core community they are anchored in. People with whom you’re networked can change, turn over, and you probably have distinct networks for distinct purposes, rather than a deep connection with a few friends and relatives.  That is, you figure out where you can get what you need among your multiple social networks, and go to them. As a result, there is more uncertainty and less loyalty, but also more freedom and maneuverability. You can choose to have everyone know what you’re doing, or maintain privacy and selectively inform people what you’re doing. This kind of social control is less commonplace in traditional social networks, where you are more “under surveillance.”

Questions. Some of this sounds good to me, some not so good. But there are some questions I’m hoping to soon read that the book is asking. For example, is this shift towards networked individualism really inevitable? What exactly are the costs (it seems to me at this point that Rainie and Wellman focus more on the potential benefits versus costs)? Are social media just helping us to stay connected or are they actually a powerful force in moving us towards more networked individualism? For whom are these changes good, and for whom are they bad (i.e., are there network mavens and network Elmer Fudds)? What is the difference between size of network and the quality of the network? What about the burden placed on us to keep up with large, disparate social networks, which for many people may be largely comprised of acquaintances? Is there less time and energy left over for “quality” interactions and true intimacy? I hope to report back soon to say that Rainie and Wellman consider these challenging questions.

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