In the aftermath of having one of my blog posts “freshly pressed” on WordPress’s homepage, resulting in over 3,000 hits (so far) and a significant chunk of my day devoted to moderating and replying to comments, I thought it might be appropriate to post on a new book by an MIT professor who specializes in the social effects of technology. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together examines how our digital social lives make increasing demands on us while presenting peculiar dangers to reputations and authenticity.
Although Turkle raises important questions about adults’ navigation of the wired world, the most original part of her analysis is the effect of social media like Facebook on teens and college students; she has compiled years’ worth of interviews with members of this demographic. These people talk about spending hours each day managing online relationships with “friends” and about how they are always under pressure to “perform,” responding instantly to text messages and the like. Perversely, the way in which they handle their digital worlds leads them to shun face-to-face contact and even telephone conversations with others: “on the telephone, too much might show.”
Young people understand, often through personal experience, that an online indiscretion can be archived forever and used against them later. Therefore they create a “phony” online presentation of themselves that is carefully stage-managed; this reviewer wonders what Holden Caulfield would think of the whole thing.
I’m not a technophobe; I love what the internet has enabled me to do both personally and professionally. But I can see the danger of allowing a text message or email to take the place of in-the-flesh contact with others too often. We need to see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices, and read each other’s body language, don’t you think? Otherwise, it seems that we’re in danger of losing part of what it means to be human.
And no, the irony of airing this concern in a digital medium is not lost on me.