The Diane Rehm Show took to the air, ending 45 minutes ago, to debate how Facebook is making us lonely and disconnected and ruining just about everything. This is my quick first-reaction. On one side was Sherry Turkle, that avatar of “digital dualism” (more on this below) who recently wrote “The Flight From Conversation” in the New York Times and Stephen Marche who wrote “Is Facebook making us Lonely?” in The Atlantic. On the other side was Zeynep Tufekci, a researcher who communicates as well as these journalists*, responding to Turkle (also in the Atlantic). While Turkle and Marche’s headlines are intentionally catchy and dramatic, they are also sensationalist and misleading. The reality is not as captivating and Tufekci’s headline in response is far more accurate: “Social Media’s Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships.”
This is one of the many lessons provided by this hour of NPR: catchy arguments tend to trump data, even on nerdtacular public radio. Tufekci, outnumbered, did well given the dearth of air time provided relative to the more sensationalist ideas on the show. Further, the show (@drshow) seemed completely unaware of the fast-moving and engaging Twitter backchannel discussing the topics in much more nuance and detail than much of what was said on-air. [You’ve already enjoyed the irony of this as opposed to Turkle’s argument, right? Obviously.]
The next lesson we learn is that while many of us social scientist and humanities scholars all take for granted that self-presentation is, in part, somewhat a performance, many still hold onto the notion that the self is purely authentic; no performance involved. When Turkle and Marche started saying that we perform ourselves online (indeed we do), they mistakenly pitted this against the offline. My reaction on Twitter, “dear @sturkle, performing the self is not an invention of social media.” Marche replied to me, “You lead a different life from mine. Your life is constant self-presentation?”
This is a telling response: the assumption that his offline self is not performed (I’m basing this on the whole series of tweets from Marche to me, check Twitter for more; anyone want to do a Storify of the conversation?). Sociology 101 might be obvious to most of us, but still new to many, even those with authority to speak in high-profile outlets. As social media researchers, we need to do a better job talking about social media trends keeping in mind history did not start or end with these new technologies (@pjrey made this point during the show). If we talk about self-performance online, we must take into account how this operates offline. Goffman wasn’t writing about Facebook and identity-theater predates Twitter.
This takes me to the main take-away from this hour of radio, and it is a major disconnect between how Turkle/Marche and Tufekci fundamentally understand the relationship between the on and offline. On one side -introducing Team Turkle- there are those who see someone on Facebook or texting and assume they are removed from the offline, physical world. This is the zero-sum view of the on/offline: the more time you spend online, the less offline; we are trading one for the other. The term I coined to capture this assumption is “digital dualism,” that the on and offline are separate and thus one displaces the other. David Banks also compellingly made this point in reaction to Turkle: “Sherry Turkle’s Chronic Digital Dualism Problem.”
Tufekci tried to promote the opposite view, that the on/offline are not separate, that time spent online can actually increase offline connection. I have described this enmeshing as the formation of an “augmented reality.” Read more: “Digital Dualism Versus Augmented Reality.”
In short, the data here is not “ambiguous” as Marche stated and made established social media researched Shelia Cotten laugh. No, the data clearly demonstrates that the on and offline do not always displace each other (see Tufekci’s piece above for a bunch of great links, or, my favorite is Pew’s Internet and American Life project). The digital dualism of Turkle and Marche is unfounded. It simply does not reflect the social media that we have come to know. I get that for many social media non-users or newcomers Turkle’s description of people alone and disconnected while staring at their Facebook screens like Sad-Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network is intuitively true. But, in the end, it isn’t intuition that counts, it’s data. And I wish that Turkle, Marche and especially the Diane Rehm Show cared more about data than sensationalism.
To end on a positive note, I am happy the show had Tufekci on, even if not giving her half of the story anywhere close to half the time (not that all opinions should be given equal time; if i had my druthers the Turkle/Marche argument could have been made by a caller and then deconstructed with data by Tufekci and we’d all move on, but, oh well, people have ads to sell). I’m happy because Tufekci provided a compelling and important counterpoint to web-fallacies in a high-profile outlet. And, most of all, this hour of radio dramatically illustrated why we need to Theorize the Web.
*I know Turkle is not a “journalist” but her style seems to fit that label best
Here is Storify of some of the highlights of the Twitter backchannel conversation during the show courtesy of Behzod Sirjani: “Social Media and Loneliness.” [The embed code is not working for me, sorry.]