Alone together: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

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?

Perhaps, or perhaps not?  They could be a certain type of person who enjoys taking a couple of hours off work to get paid to sit in a lab and talk about about themselves.  I have often met people like this whilst performing usability research and they are a perfect example of how we all want to be heard, we all want to be seen.

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 which 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?

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.