Blog Post

What the Internet Has Done to Social Connections


We are members of a class at University of Maryland, called Networked Intelligence. This semester we are wrestling with ideas about how networked technologies and our information-rich worlds change the way we learn, live, and collaborate. In response to a wonderful letter that Dr. Davidson sent us, we will post a weekly blog that summarizes the big thoughts from our own peers’ writings and class discussion. Please feel free to connect with us and add to our networked learning.

Authors: Ana Matos, Chris Watts, John King

A huge part of the teenage years is discovering who you really are. Turkle believes that this can only be accomplished once we are comfortable being truly alone, only then can we know ourselves. The problem with the internet is that continual connection leaves us no alone time, and the internet allows people to put forth a “better” version of themselves through profiles. This is hurting teenagers in their self discovery.

One of Turkle’s concerns was that with so many social networking sites, people can create profiles for all the different personalities they want to portray. With all those different profiles, how can you know what about the person is authentic? What the class argued in discussion was that we have always portrayed different personalities depending on the situation. People represent themselves differently depending on if they are at work, at home, or at school. Taking on different personalities is nothing new, it is just more visible now with internet profiles. The use of computers allows us to hide behind our screens and encourages competition with peers (Ciera).

Another concern with the Facebook era is that people now have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, but how many true friends do they really have. To be friends there is a certain amount of investment necessary to keep the relationship alive. Would people be happier having a small group of close friends rather than the hundreds of acquaintances on Facebook? Having all these people connected to you does give you many options for people to talk to depending on the problem at hand. There is always someone you can talk to. (Danielle)

The personal connections we once had with other people are also becoming more and more impersonal. Alysia points out that the conversations we have with those that are close to us are no longer as meaningful. We no longer write letters to loved ones, replacing them with digital messages that are deleted and don’t mean as much. The time we used to put into letters allowed us to give more details and exchange more meaningful thoughts, whereas now, we tend to convey a much smaller amount of information through digital communication. When we spoke to someone in person or wrote them long letters, all of our attention was focused on them. Now with texting we are always doing something else at the same time, the time is no longer personal.

We also tend to treat those on the Internet more like objects than actual people. When we anonymously post online, it tends to bring out the worst of us. We tend not to care as much because there are no repercussions for what we say, as no one can trace the comments back to us nor can we see the hurt caused by our comments. Also, because of the sheer number of people, we cannot create personal relationships with all of them. We tend to view the people we meet as objects instead of humans in order to deal with this. (Lenore) This dehumanizing on the internet is why there is such a big problem with cyber bullying, people who would never say things like that in person feel more comfortable to be mean when they are hiding behind a screen.

The ability to connect with people who are physically far away is an amazing feat of technology, but it is worrisome that these virtual connections are hurting real face to face relationships. Traci complained that friends with smartphones get so drawn into connecting with people virtually that they forget to connect with her when she is physically there with them. People need to learn to appreciate the intimacy of face to face conversations and put the phone away when they are with friends.



Thanks very much for this thoughtful post and I hope it engenders a vigorous response.   As you are probably aware, I have many disagreements with many of these ideas but that's not the point.  The point is working through disagreements to arrive at better research, and so I applaud you for posting your work so it can be discussed, debated, augmented, and get even better as a result.  I hope others will follow suit since my point of view is quite clear and there are many others who would agree with you.   What I will do here is respect your post enough to provide some counter-arguments.   I hope they are helpful.  The phrase "done to" (implying causality) is the one I'd most like to discuss.  Cause-and-effect are tricky to understand, measure, or make conclusions about.   Here's some reasons why I disagree with "blaming" the Internet for diminished social connections.  Again, please take these as contributions towards your research.


The Pew study, part of research funded by the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative that I'm part of (disclosure!), from this summer indicated that kids who have the most Facebook friends also have the most real-life friends and serious, deep friendships.   In fact, most of the research by ethnographers such as the always-remarkable danah boyd (@zephoria) suggests that a lot of the "the Internet is making us lonely" assumptions have a baseline of our own adult nostalgia, not so much a baseline comparing actual kids in one era to actual kids in another era, with strong controls for wealth, race, gender, social safety nets, and other factors.  "Technology" is never machines--it's human relations, as your work so powerfully suggests.   


I also find the idea that the Internet allows no "alone" time to be very specious.   The geographers have well documented that the amount of space we give kids has shrunk over the last 150 years, a shrinkage begun long before "the Internet." And dramatically.  From the child allowed to wander all the way over to the next village alone in 1875.  To freedom restricted to our own village.  To our county, our neighborhood, our block, our home, our play date.  That's not about the Internet but about adult control and changing definitions and regulation of parenting, especially as a middle-class marker. Given the constant surveillance of children in our homes, the fear-mongering of the media that makes parents terrified to let kids to be alone (i.e. and without parental supervision), the policing of schools, and so forth, it is odd to think "the Internet" is to blame for kids being unable to be alone.   Indeed, I tend to think kids' time online is some of the only free, imaginative, kid-positive, un-surveilled time in many kids' lives.   


Here's an example.  How would one begin to even know this in anything like empirical, measurable terms? "The personal connections we once had with other people are also becoming more and more impersonal. Alysia points out that the conversations we have with those that are close to us are no longer as meaningful. We no longer write letters to loved ones, replacing them with digital messages that are deleted and don’t mean as much."   Really?  I actually remember parents forcing me to write obligatory thank you notes to my grandparents--just as I stood over my son insisting he write to his grandparents.  Meaningful?  I want to suggest that the general categories of "email" and "letter" are too amorphous for comparison.  It's a fine, excellent question to ask but I hope you will answer it with some complication and even skepticism.  For example, there is an entire genre of literature--the epistolary novel--that was popular in the late 18th and 19th century--before telephones, in other words--that was structured around the inability of the letter to intervene directly and immediately.   Suicides, murders, adulteries, betrothals made and broken, all took place in the interstices between the writing/sending of a letter and its subsequent delivery and reading.  Novelists made a lot of hay over the inherent weakness of the genre for communication, its precariousness as a mode of true, personal communication.   With the telephone, there was a significant decrease in epistolary novels because a new technology seemingly erased the obstacle of communication across distance (which, before telephony, meant also communication across time:  i.e. it took a long time for letters to arrive).  What is the genre of email?  What does it contribute to human interaction, what are its possibilities and its limits?   I hope you will think about that level of complexity in your very interesting work.


I also think you will think about why generations love to condemn the next one, a tendency that we know goes back to at least the first written correspondence extant (two ancients complaining about the younger generation going to the dogs).  I don't see it, to be honest.  My own personal anecdotes tend to be pretty positive and backed up by a lot of actual data and statistics (this is the least violent--to self and others--and most gregarious, generous, least racist, and least substance-dependent generation since surveys began to be made after World War II).  I just returned from a Passover with half a dozen teenagers and preteens at table amid a dozen parents and grandparents and was moved to tears by the depth and understanding they articulated.  In fact, that depth of kids of this college generation takes my breath away over and over, almost every time I enter a classroom, every time I give a public lecture where young people are present.  


I find it hard to believe that my personal experience with deep, serious, committed, fun, delightful, real young people is singular.   Why am I meeting so many great human beings under the age of 30 but others see young people as shallow, impersonal, isolated, distant, distracted, inattentive?    Clearly the eye of the beholder is a factor that cannot be minimized.   We need lots more than anecdotal evidence. 


The Internet changes behaviors, there is no question.  So did television, radio, cinema, vaudeville, and (my former field of expertise) the mass produced novel (certainly reviled as the "videogame" of the 18th century).   I applaud your work and hope you will also think about countering and complicating points of view as you undertake it.   When I go around the U.S. and abroad talking about the extensive multidisciplinary research on this subject (what I bring together in Now You See It), I often find people frightened that something terrible is happening to their kids.  They are afraid and paralyzed.  That paralysis doesn't allow us to see our own involvement and scapegoats "technology" apart from our own cultures and histories.   Paralysis makes us incapable of taking the best of technology and finding ways to adapt it to ethical, responsible, creative, productive practices in our lives.   I am by no means a utopian--but I am a technopragmatism, and I fear that blanket comments such as "technology makes us lonely" divorces the machine from the human and undermines our agency and potential to make our machines work, in better ways, for our lives and that of others. 


Thanks for listening.  Your project is great and I don't in any way means to dampen your enthusiasm for it.  I just get very nervous about pronouncements at the beginning of a research project because we all know that how you frame an experiment or a project can determine the results.  Building in some controls, skepticism, complexity, comparatives, and being clear about your baseline will make this a great project.  I look forward to reading what you produce.  I'm passionate about this topic and love reading about research that helps us all to think more clearly about the complex times in which we live. 


Hello class members of "Networked Intelligence" and Cathy Davidson,

Thank you for your post(s)-- it sounds as though you are having some very interesting discussions at the University of Maryland! I was struck by two things while reading the first post:

1. a strong sense of anxiety concerning technology, and specifically social networking;

2. a general lack of agency.

I believe Cathy (and correct me if I'm misreading you, please!) comments on the latter when she writes "I fear that blanket comments such as "technology makes us lonely" divorces the machine from the human and undermines our agency and potential to make our machines work, in better ways, for our lives and that of others." I tend to align myself with this comment, as Cathy brings up (yet) another very interesting argument; namely, in the first post there is a "divorce" of the machine and human, thus rendering the machine antagonistic and the human submissive and powerless, and a simultaneous avoidance of any cyborg school teachings that have trained us to view technology as prosthesis--not, however, in a negative way. Technology as prosthesis does not mean you will necessarily lose "personal connections" "alone time" or real friends (vs Facebook friends-- a strange distinction in and of itself). You are not being subsumed into the Internet! The Internet, social networking, and digital technology have certainly become increasingly large factors and components of how we navigate our world. There's no denying this trend, and I don't believe there's any denial of the far-reaching implications of any new technology, mode of thought, or communication network, either. However, Facebook's potent role in many peoples' lives does not necessarily indicate a flattening out or dehumanizing of any human subject; rather, social networking is a space for further connections (be these positive or not). As Cathy writes, there is the "potential to make our machines work, in better ways, for our lives and that of others."

I'm not saying that social networking is without its own bag of tricks and issues; social networking can be limited, falsifying, truncated, time-consuming, and at its worst, damaging. Unfortunately, occasions of social/infrastructal limitation on communication, anonymous bullying or harassment, and time consuming systems have always been at play in our social stratosphere. But, I think that as long as we keep our critical eyes open to the networks around us, we can negotiate these factors, and live consciously, healthily, and with real friends with/in/on/under/beside social networks and the Internet at large.

Again, thank you for posting this stimulating conversation. I look forward to possible responses you may have!