Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Facebook Users Matter

I just reading finished the cover story of the May Atlantic Monthly, which asks the question "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Facebook, here, is a stand-in for the hyper connectivity enabled by the gamut of communication technologies available today. And the answer given by the novelist/journalist Stephen Marche, unsurprisingly and as suggested by the illustration of a man gazing into his glowing cell phone even as he is embraced by a naked and clearly affection-seeking woman, is yes. Or at the very least, it's not making us any less lonely.

There's a lot to critique in the research that underlies Marche's basic claims, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes clear at Slate.

What initially caught my attention in the piece (besides the realization that I'd be able to use The Social Network when I teach the history of technology) is that it hinges on a variation of a "users matter" argument. According to Marche, it's not inherent in Facebook, or other online social networking technology, to be isolating. It's just that many people use Facebook in ways that enhance feelings of loneliness rather than feelings of sociability. Instead of using Facebook to arrange meaningful, face-to-face interactions, we're more likely to click "like" to show our approval of a friend's most recent photo or status update and be done.

Marche interviews John Cacioppo, of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, who compares Facebook to automobiles in his suggestion that it's not the technology that matters but how we use it: "It's like a car. You can drive it to pick up your friends. Or you can drive alone." Marche decides to run with the idea, using a variant of that idea to argue that:
"The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved. When the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened its A&P stores, giving Americans self-service access to groceries, customers stopped having relationship with their grocers. When the telephone arrived, people stopped knocking on their neighbors doors. Social media brings this process to a much wider set of relationships."
Of course, these aren't very good examples to choose, not least because user-centered histories of cars and telephones have shown the ways in which these did increase social connectivity (as Klinenberg also points out on Slate). In addition, Marche's argument seems to assume that there's an innate human tendency adopt technologies in socially counterproductive ways -- a sweeping generalization of human nature that undermines the very flexibility that the "users matter" idea first introduces to his narrative.

I'm curious to know what others think of the article, and, in a nod to Marche, I'll add that if we can make that happen over a beer, all the better. 

5 comments:

  1. How 'bout tomorrow night?! I'll share my thoughts about Sherry Turkle's NYT op-ed on "The Flight from Conversation" . . .

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, Helen. I have a lot of sympathy for Marche's argument. I have a kind of constantly running background project, called "Vicious Technologies," that I hope to kill after my first book. People often see social-alienation-via-technology arguments as guilty of technological determinism, but things change if we examine the problem through a virtue ethics lens.

    Perhaps the problem isn't that the technologies make us behave in some way, but that they enable certain untoward desires that we already have. I don't think these desires have to be ahistorical or unconstructed. They could be very historical and culturally contingent like our conceptions of beauty. Or they could be totally ahistorical. Not sure how we'd solve that one.

    In an Aristotelian manner, virtues are always a balance between deficiency and excess. Perhaps certain technologies encourage us to take some potentially good things too far--like the desire for solitude, which in the right balance might give us space for contemplation but in excess can lead to despair. Yet, here I've made the technologies an actor. But perhaps we post-Latourians are happy to say that people and things both play a role in the process?

    All good things to think through. I hope to do much more in the future. Thanks for the post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jo, it's a deal, as long as we make "tomorrow" tomorrow. Turkle's piece is a great compliment to this one.

    And, Lee, I'm surprised. It seems that you don't just have a lot of sympathy for Marche's argument, but buy in altogether! My concern was not with a notion of technological determinism in the article (and common in current commentary on the same topic) but rather it's despair about some asserted innate human tendencies (in this case to not use technologies wisely).

    Your recourse to ethics is one option to help think through this, but I think it more important to note first that there's historical evidence --already worked through -- that works against the sweeping generalizations Marche makes about the ways in which new technologies are adopted. When I wrote my original comment, I had in mind historical work like that of Ron Kline on the adoption of technologies like the phone and the car in rural America that show how differently these were perceived, and put to use, outside the urban context.

    Regardless, good things to think through, as you say. And I suspect we'll have to be reading about and thinking about how Facebook, etc., affect us for some time to come.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey, Helen. I spoke too bluntly. I certainly don't mean to endorse Marche's work in an unqualified way.

    User studies are important, whether Kline's or Eric Von Hippel's! And there is the always beautiful image in Kline's and David Edgerton's writings of people using engines from model T's and washing machines to do radically different things than originally intended.

    My point is that historians and others in STS should also think about the historical shaping of human desire. This could take the form of studying scientific ideas about human nature and desire and how, for instance, these ideas shape governance, as we will likely see at a workshop here in the Harvard STS program tomorrow (http://sts.hks.harvard.edu/events/workshops/human-nature-in-the-public-sphere/).

    Or it could take the form of thinking about how actual "desire" (or whatever we want to call that thing) is shaped historically. This goes back to shifting perceptions of beauty and notions like the "American Dream." I think this is probably also related to histories and theories of affect, which so many people are into today.

    And then there is the even hairier question of how changes in the science of desires and desires themselves relate to and are shaped by technology.

    I suppose what worries me are accounts that seem to suggest that humans are constructed "all the way down," and I bristle at the wave of discomfort that runs through academic rooms if someone suggests that there might be "natural" or "biological" or you-name-it desires.

    Perhaps what I'm thinking is analogous to what Hank wrote about Chris Mooney (http://americanscience.blogspot.com/2012/03/republican-brain.html#more): I don't think that Marche is right. We would certainly want a great deal more subtlety than he or Mooney give us. But as Mooney pointed us towards the importance of psychology (as civic epistemology in Hank's reading), Marche points towards desire. That direction might be worth taking seriously, even if we discard Marche's first take.

    So, yes (!), users, and yes(!), technological change, and please also, desire!

    And in saying that, I realize that I might just be repeating what Slavoj Zizek (love him or hate him) has been saying since 1990. C'est la vie. Looking forward to more chats down the road.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Also, Marche suggests that A&P was the first self-serve grocery store, but it actually didn't adopt that model until 1936, whereas the real pioneer, Piggly Wiggly, opened it's self-service doors in 1916!

    ReplyDelete