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.