Alone together: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from

The Information Superhighway is just a f***ing metaphor! Give me a break!
-Randy Waterhouse, Cryptonomicon (1999)

During a 2012 Ted talk based on her book Alone Together, Social Studies of Technology Professor, Sherry Turkle said: ‘Technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go.’

Turkle admits that this is a contradiction to what she has said before, especially circa 1996 in another Ted talk, when she celebrated life on the Internet. As a psychologist, she went online to learn about herself in the virtual worlds of chat rooms and online communities, so that she could unplug and use this knowledge in the real world. Nowadays, she regretfully admits that she sleeps with her phone.

As a human-computer interaction researcher, I have watched users anthropomorphise computers and sociologists theorise about metaphors about the Internet instead of the Internet itself. Listening to Turkle, she seems to be doing both – which makes me ask:

  • What sort of information was she looking to learn about herself online?
  • Why did she think she would/could only learn this online?
  • And why does she feel the need to sleep with her phone? (What does she even mean by that anyway? Is it on her pillow?)

Prior to the Information Superhighway of online communities, computers sat on your desk and as a human you interacted with them in order to achieve an end result e.g., an answer to a calculated problem, a neatly typed document, or a graph to explain some figures. As technology evolved, we shared this information over The Net as this documentary shows: The Internet in 1995 for work and for fun.

With our smart phones we now have the ability to interact with people on the other end of communicating technologies, as Turkle refers to them, aka social media, in real time – wherever and whenever we want. And particularly with social media, often, we are not interacting with a computer to solve a problem, we are just interacting with groups of people to share different types of information, for a number of reasons.

Turkle has found people using mobile technology during board meetings, lectures, meals, and funerals. She says this is bad because not only are people removing themselves from a situation e.g, a parent texting instead of listening to a child during dinner, but also from our feelings such as grief during a funeral.

The last funeral I went to was my Dad’s funeral. I didn’t grieve the whole time. Some of the time I laughed and chatted to people as we remembered my Dad and his great gift of being able to make you laugh no matter what. And since then, even on the saddest day when grief has felt unbearable, I had found that it is impossible to grieve non-stop. You don’t do full-on, full-time. Grief is exhausting.

Researchers are still trying to understand how many emotions we feel in one day, and where one emotion ends and another starts. When you are deep in grief and hit by an intense wave of it, on average it lasts 90 seconds and you have to hang on in there until it passes. You don’t get a choice.

So for me, people go into their phones not because they are escaping their emotions, but because they are choosing to stop one interaction and start a new one, like finding someone different to talk to at a cocktail party, or turning to the other side when seated at dinner. And Turkle in some way concurs with this by saying that people want to feel that they have control over their attention. But that is not because of technology. A few years ago, I was invited to attend a one hour meeting which went on for SEVEN HOURS. All, I can say is that I wish I had had a distraction that day. As it was, I was grateful for my zoning out abilities.

Turkle obviously has never had to suck it up, otherwise she would not believe that by tolerating the boring bits, of friendship and of meetings we help ourselves. She says that when we are in communication with others we are in communication with ourselves. I am not so sure. We are not psychologists and we don’t always want to examine ourselves like Turkle did in her 1996 brave new world. Often we just want a break like I did from the guy who really had no respect for himself or anyone in the room as he droned on incessantly. The only thing I was learnt that day was that I wasn’t ever going to work with that guy again.

Turkle goes on to say that if we don’t have to reflect on ourselves, we don’t learn or know how to be alone. Again, I disagree, people have long found ways to avoid solitude and other people with work, alcohol, food, TV, radio, overeating, smoking, the list goes on… People have also engaged in meaningless interactions with many vs. quality time with few and inattentive parents and friends are nothing new. Technology has not made us like this, we have always been seekers of distraction and stimulation.

One of the main disappointments of this talk is that Turkle doesn’t believe that people on
Twitter have meaningful conversations or that they are learning and knowing about each other. Instead she thinks that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation. Especially, when she says that we believe that technology will listen when others don’t. Argh! It is not technology which is listening. It is a person at the end of a phone who is listening and responding. Which begs the question: Who are all these people Turkle has interviewed who are desperate to escape their lives? Why are they seeking an audience? Are they surrounded by people who are not listening and not giving them what they need?

The world is changing and technology is making us able to connect with people regardless of time and space, which does change how we behave to a certain extent, i.e, many people have learnt to text on their phones whilst maintaining eye contact and a conversation with the person in front of them. However, I do not believe it is changing us to become incapable of connecting in a meaningful way. All the people in Turkle’s study demonstrated that. If they found the connections they had in meetings and at dinner so stimulating, they would put down the technology makes it easy for them to connect elsewhere.

Turkle began the talk by saying that she got a text from her daughter and it felt like a hug! I was a bit surprised by this assertion. Perhaps hugs and texts do feel the same to her. Although, I would want to see her brain scanned during both events to see if it lights up in the same way. Personally, a text from one of my daughters – symbols on a digital screen – could never feel like their arms around my neck and their beautiful faces next to mine, never.

We have seen the end of society predicted many times with the advent of rock n’ roll and with television. With hindsight, we realise that the bad thing in question is not an agent of change but an agent of reflection. So, perhaps the question is not: is social media is changing us? But: How is social media reflecting us?

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Maslow’s hierarchy of social media

Maslow's Social Media Hierarchy

The above image has been doing the rounds for a while, because it is an interesting premise to consider: Does social media fulfill a human need? If so, what better way is there to ponder this question than with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

When we look at why the most popular social media apps were invented, it was because they were answering specific needs. Needs which had arisen and were fulfilled because the Internet compresses time and space to create an environment of sharing:

  • Flickr was invented to share photographs online.
  • Instagram was invented to create polaroid style pictures for sharing.
  • Facebook’s originated because people wanted an online Harvard student network and some say because Mark Zuckenburg wanted to invade peoples’ privacy.
  • LinkedIn got started as an online business networking tool.
  • Twitter came about as a way of sharing SMSs to lots of people simultaneously.
  • YouTube was invented, so the story goes, so that a group of people could share videos of a wedding they had all attended.
  • Pinterest was created so people could save and bookmark all the lovely pictures they found surfing the Internet.
  • WordPress was invented so that people could easily blog online and have lovely pages without having to learn html/css.

Each one of these solved a need, which is why google+ did not become the next big thing in social media. Former Google employee Chris Messina says that whilst it was a good idea to stop Facebook’s major marketshare, google+’s only goal was to replace Facebook, and without a specific need to address, google+ tried too hard (and failed) to be everything to everyone.

What everything is to everyone is impossible to define, as we are constantly changing and adapting, which is why social media does not fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy in the way the image portrays.

Maslow said that humans begin at the bottom of the pyramid and then work their way up. So, once the need for food and water is satisfied, shelter is next, and so on. But, this is not how social media works. So, once I have created my identity on facebook, I don’t move up to the level of twitter for self-esteem. We use multiple social media channels simultaneously, so today when I finish this blog I will publicise its existence on facebook, twitter, google+, etc.

Instead, I believe that we have a fundamental human need to be seen and heard, valued and accepted, and our greatest need when it comes to social media is to share our human experiences good and bad, happy and sad, in order to make sense of them, and to feel connected. This is demonstrated by why the channels were invented in the first place. So, it is not the social media channel, the how we share, which should be fitted into Maslow’s hierarchy, it is what we share that fits into this pyramid.

Last summer, I went to the London Content marketing show which was packed full of great talks, which the audience tweeted throughout the day #contentmarketingshow. I listened to many talks about what types of information people share and what is the most popular type of information. As I took notes, I realised that you can categorise the information which gets shared most into the various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry is shared more often than information which makes them happy, because we all need to feel physically safe and we have that neanderthal fight or flight thing still going on.
  • Safety: Information that helps others and is useful is shared informally or in a formal context such as online educating and learning for the workplace or the classroom, because we all like to feel safe and education is one way of ensuring our safety.
  • Social: People share information about their identity – likes and dislikes, in groups or individually, because we all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: People share information as social currency: they look cool, they have the latest yoga pants or they have a skill, they blog about something they are knowledgeable, and can influence others, or they wish to be perceived as an influencer, because we need in society to respect ourselves and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization:People like to share compelling narratives – anecdotes, stories, pictures, quotation which have helped them grow or to they share to encourage others grow.

And, there is another category of information, which is one of surprise. The type of information which is shared more than anything else on social media is surprising information – in the form of stories, short videos, images, apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Maslow added a similar category after he had completed his pyramid. He called it the self-transcendance or spirituality category. He put it at the top of the pyramid but stressed that it could go hand in hand with the lowest of needs such as food and water. Surprise does help us to transcend/forget ourselves or to see things in a different way.

Life coach Tony Robbins in his research refers to this as variety and say that although humans need certainty (Maslow’s physiological and safety needs), they also like variety and surprise. We crave new stimulus, to take us out of ourselves, to be lifted up and make our day.

And for me, this is the best bit of social media. Social media can make our day and lift us up. I believe that the person who drew this image thought that too, and gave social media the authority of Maslow’s hierarchy. Used correctly, social media can be a fast way for us to transcend ourselves and feel part of something bigger as we climb up our pyramid of needs.

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Bikram: Heat is the way to inner peace

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

Back in January when I was missing the summer sun in which to do my yin yoga, I signed up for a 20-day introductory pass to Bikram Yoga.

I have heard many stories about Bikram and couldn’t put down Benjamin Lorr’s Hellbent. Consequently, I was nervous about doing a whole class and prepared for it as if it was surgery. I really didn’t give much thought to what I would be doing in the class – apart from trying not to vomit.

So, imagine my surprise when I found Bikram completely recognisable. To me, originally a Sivananda girl, it felt completely traditional. I guess with the heat and the gym style mirrors, I presumed that Bikram would be unrecognisable in that similar way I had found Astanga and Vinyasa Flow to be, the first few times. Whereas Iyengar had always seems familar but with bells on and was modern enough to provide a great range of accessories for the shopaholics amongst us.

What is modern about Bikram, is what Choudhury himself calls a McYoga approach: You do the same 26 poses every single time. There are no variations or adaptations of any of the asanas. You can go to any class and have the same experience. And because, it is the same sequence each time, so -moreorless – is the script, that the teachers follow.

The script drove me bonkers. One J Kennedy left a comment on YouTube underneath a Bikram audio session likening it to horse racing or an auction – oh so true! I laughed when I read that comment as I found the script infuriating. And, in one class I heard it in a wobbly voice (like when someone needs to clear their throat) with a clap of their hands at the end of each and every breath in and breath out command. Ninety minutes of this! I thought I was going to go nuclear like Ronnie and Dr Stein in The Flash.

Instead, I became euphoric. My mind stopped completely and I was ecstatic and entered a bubble of bliss which lasted most of the day.

And this is what yoga is supposed to do. At its purest level, shrouded in the mysteries of time, and let’s not forget, never taught to women, yoga is about the union of the self (jiva) with pure consciousness (Brahman). And in many different classes I have worked so hard to get to that place of inner peace, of being at one with all things, of literally unclenching my heart – which I know, sounds so wrong, you shouldn’t have to work at it, right? It should come naturally, but for me, it was only in Bikram that, not only did it come naturally, and I let go, I did it consistently in every single session. It was totally McYoga giving me the same experience every time.

And Bikram was like a gift that kept on giving. It made me do three yogic things: 1) drink at least three litres of water per day, and 2) & 3) abstain from caffeine and alcohol.
And whilst I would like to say that this was because I felt at one with all things in a bubble of bliss, it wasn’t. It was knowing that if I didn’t do the above, I would feel so ill during the next session. Unwittingly, I became the clean living yogi I had always aspired to be, complete with inner peace.

And it would seem that inner peace in a sweaty mirrored gym, is an oxymoron. However, the point of meditating, doing yoga, or being mindful, is being able to remain strong in that peace whatever is happening, sitting on your mat in silence or in the auction/race horse of real life. And that for me is what Bikram gives to the world.

I also have to say that I loved the mirrors. It was great to watch myself and correct positions if it wasn’t quite right. In my mind I am tall, wiry and muscular. In the mirror, I am 5 feet tall and a little bit squidgy. But then like all yogis with inner peace I know that temporal reality is just an illusion.

At the end of my 20 days I caught a tummy bug, another lady in the changing rooms had had it. Had I got it off her? Quite possibly, with the amount of sweatiness going on. Man, I was sweating in places I didn’t know possible. By the time I had recovered from this bug, I felt resistant to signing up for another batch of classes. The best deal involved three months commitment, direct debit and a rolling monthly contract. And it was/is a great deal but, I just couldn’t bring myself to sign back up, even with the knowledge that in those classes I was the committed yogi I always imagined I would be.

Was it the two sets of clothes? (One to wear before and after and one set in the yoga room.) Was it the two two towels? (One to sweat on during class and one to have a shower with.)
Was it the time out of my day? (Up to two and half hours out of the day.)

Bikram Choudray discovered his style of yoga, so the story goes, when practising in winter in Japan (perhaps that accounts for the Japanese Ham Sandwich instruction). He kept turning up the heat where he was staying until no doubt he felt blissful. So, inspired by this, I cranked up the little heater in my office and listened to the above YouTube 90 minute audio, and went through the poses. It was nice. It was easier without the sweatiness, and I felt like I had done a good yoga session, but then I added some other poses – more twists and inversions – and I spent longer in poses on the floor to balance out what I felt I had missed – but I didn’t get euphoric. I also had to switch off Mr Choudray well before the end, and so, this confirmed what I had started to think. It was the heat that made me blissful not the yoga. And without the heat, I have stopped doing the three yogic things.

I am torn, part of me wants to shout Sign Me Up so I can sweat and spend a guaranteed three hours a day in a blissful state. However, the rest of me is already back on my mat at home, wrapped up in layers doing yin yoga searching for internal heat. For as great as the feeling of euphoria is, it seems to this yogi, that the journey needs to be as enjoyable as the state of bliss is, once you get there.

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Katie Hopkins’s #myfatstory is a story of vulnerability

Katie Hopkins pic courtesy of TLC

Image copyright of TLC

Last weekend, Katie Hopkins starred a in two-part documentary called My Fat Story on TLC. In three months, she gained 42lbs to take her from a BMI of 15 (a BMI healthy minimum is 18) to a BMI of 26 (lower end of the overweight category). Then, she lost weight by eating normally – i.e., whatever she wanted, and exercising for two hours a day.

The documentary was formulaic but Hopkins did her best, gamely shovelling down 6,000 calories a day and sleeping with a sick bucket by her bed. She did the obligatory US trip to do an all-you-can-eat-burger challenge and visited a 57-stones lady, of whom she said: ‘I would rather be put down…’ Both in the UK and US she repeatedly said: ‘I hate fat people.’ Until she gained weight and then she repeatedly said: ‘I hate fat people for doing this to me.’

Her goal was to show everyone that if we eat less and move more, we lose weight.

Eat less, move more is a fundamental truth known to every dieter the world over. And, really if it was that easy, then the dieting industry, which in the UK alone, is worth £2 billion would not exist.

Life coach Martha Beck, in her book 4-Day Win, says that the problem with most overweight people is not that we lack willpower or are ignorant of the basic principles. It is because of the way we think about food: Eating is deliberate behaviour and such behaviour is compelling and addictive, which leaves people feeling completely out of control where food and eating is concerned.

Hopkins did not understand this and admitted that she has a purely functional relationship with food. It was only when she gained 20lbs and felt a bit weepy did she realise that people do not overeat on purpose.

And this for me is where a whole other story was going on.

At the beginning of the program, Hopkins’s metabolism was so fast, she was able to consume 4,000 calories daily without any weight gain. She ran marathons, took 20,000 steps daily (double the recommended daily target) and exercised for two hours a day. She also, had no compassion for anybody, not even herself.

In the middle of the program, Hopkins was at her fattest. She HATED herself and was ashamed of her body, which led her to state that she had always been proud of her previously skinny strong, body. ‘It is my armour,’ she said. And without it, she was vulnerable.

Professor of Sociology, Brene Brown has studied vulnerability for many years. In her book Daring Greatly, she echoes Hopkins’s comments about armour.

Brown says that people armour up to prevent feeling vulnerable, afraid and, ashamed, and warns against doing this, because whilst these feelings are hard to bare, if you hang on in there, vulnerability really is a gift. For, it is the birthplace of creativity and love and all the good things that give our lives meaning. During her research, Brown has collected many stories of vulnerability and how being vulnerable is the best way of connecting with others. For, we all have a story, we all want to be heard and understood.

And in the documentary, once Hopkins felt vulnerable, she went around connecting with people and collecting their stories too. She seemed genuinely amazed at how easily people trusted her with their stories. This was because, she would never trust anyone with her story and with the shame she still carries around. So, once the weight came off, back on went the armour, she buried that vulnerability and instead of connecting, her attacks on overweight people became more and more vicious.

My theory on Hopkins is that having been discharged from the army for being ‘medically unfit’, she never got over it. Feeling vulnerable and ashamed, she turned her anger and disappointment firstly on herself, and then, on the people who are unfit in her eyes. And, therein lies the real shame and real story of Katie Hopkins #myfatstory.

With that amount of energy and access to a national platform, Hopkins could have used her time and energy to understand, to inspire and uplift, and help us all walk through those moments of vulnerability to somewhere more creative in a space of shared connectivity and meaning. Instead she re-declared war on a whole section of society, and tragically, on herself.

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Ambivalent web design


Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?


  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.


      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

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