The Wounded Soul of Social Media = Connected but Alone

This post may not break any new ground, but it does summarize about two years […]

Bryan J. / 9.4.12

This post may not break any new ground, but it does summarize about two years worth of Mockingbird analysis on the psychology and law of social networking. We’ve profiled Sherry Turkle’s work before, noting her front-line work on the psychological impact of social networking. We’ve profiled the internet-ubiquitous TED talks, and their exquisite use of social media to, among other things, tell us how bad social media can be for us. And yes, we’ve written extensively on the dynamics of Law and loneliness across just about every social network, from pixel-perfect profile pictures to the exchange of difficult relationships for avatar based cyber-selves.

So this is a TED talk by Sherry Turkle on how Social Media is making us lonely. Again, this isn’t new territory, but I have not personally read/seen/heard anybody articulate (consciously or not!) the link between judgement, fear, law, and faux-friendships. This is good stuff. Here’s the talk, though if you don’t have time right now to watch all 20 minutes, I’ve reproduced some choice soundbites below:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” People say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.

So the appeal of social media is rooted not in more connectivity, but in more controlled connectivity.  And it’s not hard to trace that need for control backwards to the fear of rejection rooted in an inability to meet another person’s standards.  As Turkle explains, the technologies we’ve developed to substitute human interaction are more controllable, less judgmental, and effective in psychologically creepy ways:

We’re developing robots, they call them sociable robots, that are specifically designed to be companions — to the elderly, to our children, to us. Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for each other? During my research I worked in nursing homes, and I brought in these sociable robots that were designed to give the elderly the feeling that they were understood. And one day I came in and a woman who had lost a child was talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal. It seemed to be looking in her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. It comforted her. And many people found this amazing.

But that woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life. That robot put on a great show. And we’re vulnerable. People experience pretend empathy as though it were the real thing. So during that moment when that woman was experiencing that pretend empathy, I was thinking, “That robot can’t empathize. It doesn’t face death. It doesn’t know life.”

And as that woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing; I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments in my 15 years of work. But when I stepped back, I felt myself at the cold, hard center of a perfect storm. We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

I think Turkle’s analysis is dead on–our technology is an exercise in hearing what we want to hear with as little demand upon us as possible. But the unexplored and dangerous path that Turkle has yet to venture down is, I think, a question of anthropology with a hard answer. If people are turning to technology to escape human interaction, there are two reasons I think justify that turn. First, as Turkle suggests, we’re are doing it because it’s easier than person-to-person interaction, like relational fast food. Relationships are hard- this isn’t news to anybody. Second, and in my opinion more likely, we’re turning to social networking out of a deep fear of rejection and woundedness from other people. It’s not just convenience that leads an elderly woman to talk with a robot seal–it begs the question why she hasn’t found another soul to hear her story. Has she been abandoned by family, or lacking in friendship? Teenagers try awkwardly to learn social ques to become adults, but it’s no surprise that, after getting shot down repeatedly by the law of high school, teens retreat behind avatar-buttressed walls! Most of my friends who try online dating do so because real life dating has been met with so much frustration and pain (though, of course, many are just trying to expand the proverbial dating pool). Turkle asks the question: “Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for each other?” What she perhaps should ask is: “Have we been so wounded that we cannot trust anybody to be there for one another?” It is in that deep woundedness, of course, that the gospel does its healing and saving work, but until then, it looks as if we frail creatures have another square peg to try and jam into the God-shaped holes in our hearts.