Is social media bad or good? The debate heats up


The first of my 11 themes for the Zeitgeist of 2011 was ‘Networked or Not?

We are all facing a fundamental choice that will shape our lives. Many dive headlong into a world of always-on connection, open social networks, and oversharing. A few cry halt and choose to live only in the old world of tight-knit personal communication. The result is a divided society.

Addressing exactly that point, a great article in The Guardian titled Social networking under fresh attack as tide of cyber-scepticism sweeps US , drawing particularly on Sherry Turkle’s new book Along Together.

The article notes:

“A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age.

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The article goes on through a list of recent books that attack social media, and then notes that “the backlash now has a backlash”, with responses to Turkle and the others, and many ardent defenders of social media piping up.

Clearly no change is all good or all bad. Back in the 1990s, my fervent belief that technology was about bringing people together was grossly at odds with the prevailing social view that technology was for geeks who were isolated from society. It’s seem like a long time since I was asked in almost every media interview about whether and how technology was isolating us. We now broadly accept that these technologies are indeed ‘social’.

I think few would argue that it is a good thing that grandchildren and grandparents separated by long distances can keep in touch with each other far better than ever before, and that we can maintain relationships with friends from through our life who previously we frequently lost touch with.

Technologies are used and abused, and for some social technologies are used as an alternative rather than complement to enduring face-to-face relationships.
Turkle says:

“We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us.”

While I strongly disagree, this is absolutely a debate worth having. It is in the way we use these tools that makes them valuable or not.

I use the term “latent humanity” to describe how social technologies in particular are allowing us to uncover aspects of who we are that we have never been able to express before. That in itself is a valuable thing, I believe, even if it is not always pretty. As the human race, we need to discover and get better at what it is to be far more richly connected and interdependent than ever before. Let us not explore from a perspective of possibility how powerful a force for good social technologies can be, and not turn away from them.