“There have never been more ways to communicate with one another than there are right now.” – from Nancy Baym's Personal Connections in the Digital Age: Digital Media and Society Series
Technological forms of communication are pervasive in our society: it is virtually impossible to walk down the street or into a coffee shop without seeing a multitude of people communicating with individuals who aren’t physically present. Phone calls, text messages, emails, video calls, instant messaging, and other social media provide us the opportunity to stay in constant connection with others— should we choose, digital media makes it possible to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime. Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age: Digital Media and Society Series explores more nuanced aspects of how these technologies influence our personal relationships and, further, our increased inability to navigate social interactions without them.
Dissenting from a wave of contemporary authors who proclaim that digital media is the demise of humanity, Baym’s text leaves readers with a surprisingly optimistic outlook on the future of digital media in relation to individual and personal connections. Initially, I chose to read Personal Connections because it drew me to mind of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, a work referenced in by Baym that provides a strikingly wary stance on the use of technology in personal relationships. Dissimilarly from Alone Together, Baym builds her text around the idea of how we choose to incorporate this technology into our current forms of social interaction rather than presenting a dichotomy that emphasizes the use or non-use of digital media. Every chapter effectively highlights a different application of digital media through a similar structure: each opens with an engaging introduction, utilizing pop culture references, illustrations, or one of Baym’s personal anecdotes; follows with more specific data from theoretical applications or a historical context of the specific technology; and ends with a summary of the main points to take away from the section. For someone who has had minimal formal experience with the scholarship of digital technology, this consistent framework seems to make Baym’s work more accessible: the text is interesting, informative, and illuminating of digital media’s more positive implementations, without being unnecessarily complex or dense.
Moreover, Baym’s analysis productively raises questions that shape societal understanding of how we choose to use media for personal connection: what does it mean to be authentically human and how will the incorporation of technological communication in relationships alter this? In a final discussion on the implications of utilizing these technological mediums, Baym notes, “new media for personal connection make the social norms we take for granted visible and offer opportunities for changing them. This is hardly new to the digital age” (154). It is possible that the ‘new’ connections we are noticing because of digital media have always existed and are merely shifting form. Society’s explicit concern about the quality of personal connection ultimately reinforces a desire to maintain our humanity; as Baym continues to emphasize, if we are conscientious of why we turn to these forms of digital communication and how we utilize them, society will maintain control of its social development.
While her text does produce a compelling argument for the continued integration of digital communication into our society, Baym does, however, fail to address a more global scope of how digital means of communication affect different cultures; she does, on occasion, venture into different territories— in a latter chapter she specially delves into an example of mobile phones in Israel— but this diversity in the text is rare. Baym’s text could benefit from a broader view of technological communication; regardless, the book as a whole creates an interesting claim that these new, emerging means of communication could have more advantages than drawbacks. In its entirety, Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age provides a reassuring perspective on the digital media: despite our continued dependence on technological communication, we may be moving towards a more positively connected era.
Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. Print.