Facetime to Facebook: Social Cohesion Inside the Digital Network

Are we setting ourselves up for loneliness when we seek lasting social bonds within the network of digital media?  Nilofar Ansher

Straight up, let me ask you something elemental: How difficult was it for you to transition from chatting with your friends in a coffee bar to having regular conversations online, to Facebook becoming your dominant form of staying in touch with them? Really, come to think of it, engaging in discussions or chit-chat online should have traumatized most of us, considering we are social creatures and we love to jump all over our conversations (and each other) – interrupting someone’s train of thought, laughing, saying more with our expressions than with so many spoken words.

I guess you didn’t spend a whole lot of time ruminating over the move, it seemed natural, almost inevitable. A broadband connection would have been cheaper for a family, than using your cellphone to talk to each of your friends at a time. Also, the kind of stuff we now share or talk about has changed. Instead of just talking shop, we have this entire ‘media arsenal’ at our disposal, prompting us to share. News, videos, cartoons, books, funny quotes and memes, songs and lyrics, photographs and other digital ephemera that encouraged a move from face to interface. While a decade ago, we still did all these things without the aid of the social media ‘share’ button, the mechanics of digital conversations are different: sharing chunks of information at a time with a larger group or the public (one-to-many dissemination is more the norm on Facebook), the instant feedback loop (acknowledgement from the network) and the interface of the network (textual, word limit, smileys) mean that the very nature of ‘sharing’ has changed.

That loneliness is a pre-dominant concern of social media users is a trope that refuses to die in mainstream media and academic circles. There are frequent surveys of teenagers and youth who spend long hours online, yet fail to have strong social ties within the network (Pew Research, February 2012). There are several news items that chronicle depression and anxiety (and even bullying) among heavy social media users (here, here and here). This is not to say that the frequent spotlight on this phenomenon confirms this peculiar situation of being hyper-connected, yet hyper-lonely. These studies or surveys are certainly not global, nor are they wide-reaching in the demography they cover or the period through which the participants are tracked. On the other side of this debate are the digital culture gurus, the net experts and geeks, and the cyberculture celebs who cry foul when they read such reports. They deny the validity of these studies and insist that social media fosters connections, help us meet people we would otherwise have not met, and intensify our influence in the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend network (here, here and here).

So, are we all gung-ho and cheerful when we build our social network (and net worth) online or are there slight cracks to this happy portrait? Are people who are social ‘in real life’ equally social online and those who are introvert just as shy online or do the positions and personalities do a switch-over the moment we log on to Facebook? Most importantly, are we connecting lesser with each other – in the flesh and face to face than before – but still maintaining strong social, emotional and filial ties with people, both online and offline? I guess a survey wouldn’t be able to answer these questions. I think it’s a bit of everything: firstly, the nature of work we are engaged in; the kind of social activities we love to be part of; the level of engagement we display in any activity, and our immediate environment.

For those of us who spend a minimum of eight hours in front of our PCs and frequently our phones, loneliness is not an active ingredient of our routine. There is work to be done, multiple tabs to navigate content and avatars to talk to. It’s just convenient that we also use the same medium to maintain and strengthen our social network. But over the weekends, when I am not working, if I don’t make it a point to go out and socialize, then of course I am bound to feel lonely. But since we are also habituated to spending so much time online, perpetually interacting with icons, friends, messages, responding to comments, sharing and linking information – constantly on talk mode – there’s a definite sense of something missing when we are not online, available and swimming in the social tide. Is that sense of disconnect loneliness?

Information overload is an entirely different debate, but one that runs parallel to the loneliness issue as well. We consume media content because the benchmark of what is interesting and fun has also evolved. If we don’t talk about the Kolaveri di video going viral or share the ‘Y U No’ memes, we would be left sharing mundane stuff about that guy next door or our low paying jobs or the family wedding where chicken tikka stains ruined your Anarkali. And while we still do that – share the minutiae of our lives with our best friends, most of us don’t do it so overtly online, and certainly not with our network who are always conspicuously online.

Historically, we are adept at maintaining different sets of friends: school, college, library partners, and music class pals, acquaintances that you meet every day on your way to religious lesson; we perform differently with each of them and the quality of information sharing also differs. But with Facebook or other social media platforms, we face a unique situation: to have all these disparate set of friends on a single platform means the rules of social engagement and intimacy change. While it was alright to crack a joke within my group about my brother’s romantic exploits, to do that on Facebook’s Wall or tweet about it to my followers would be kind of funny, in a socially awkward way. That’s just not information for public consumption. Notice that although we are quite aware of what to share with which group, the position of having several of your close friends sharing breathing space with hundreds of your acquaintances is a tricky maze to navigate. It calls for a certain level of artifice. That’s the fine distinction I wanted to draw out between natural rhythm of social communication versus the ones that we engage online.

The spotlight is also on the nature of these interfaces. Once again, net celebs have criticized that plugging in 24×7 doesn’t mean we are missing out on conversations or walks in the park. However, we have to acknowledge that there’s a distinctly sudden change in the way we say something; face to face conversation would entail so many cues to follow – eyes and expressions, gestures and body language, silences, pauses, stuttering, and the breadth of manoeuvres required to convey a detail or argue over something finely, distinctly and with clarity, elements which we still believe necessary for a satisfying conversation. In textual communication, while you hear their responses, there’s the uncertain element of asynchronicity. On Facebook for instance, you say something first, wait for your friends to respond, then you respond to that – it’s a sequence, which is exactly how the conversation would have unfolded in that coffee bar, with the minor difference being that on Facebook, your friends might reply to your post in a minute or perhaps a week later, and you wouldn’t have the joy of witnessing their cheeky smiles.

You might argue that social media has evolved its own lexicon and codes to bridge that physical divide. We now have emoticons and newer ways to re-present the Body. There is also video and voice chat, so it’s like being ‘in front’ your friends, even if you are not ‘with’ them. This is the homily that sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov projected in his novel, The Naked Sun, where communication is done via holographic telepresence called viewing, as opposed to in-person seeing. This perspective of how ‘presence’ is understood is essential to how conversation thrives and ultimately, inter-personal relationships and social cohesion. I have this rather alarmist view that we are already on the trajectory depicted in The Naked Sun, where personal / human contact is shunned and coded out of practice.  

I guess I grew up at a time when we had the best of all the worlds – we were close enough to our closest friends, maintained interesting relationships with our pen friends, visited relatives every other week for that familial bonding, and also had the novelty of the landline to get in touch with friends during the vacation or a favourite cousin who has shifted to another city. Conversely, the limitations also didn’t fill us with the need to know what these people did every hour or day or find out what movies they saw or games they played, or if their relationship is complicated or rainbowish. All of these were, in simple terms, none of our business!

Facebook users thrive in an environment where all personal remarks are subject to increasingly informal responses by default, because of the way the interface is designed. These responses are not taught or borrowed, but mutate over time (and time itself is experienced differently online). Facebook is all about transparency and the ensuing culture of participation that underpins open systems. If you are open about your life, you engage with people more often and gradually post increasingly greater bytes of information. You don’t pause to think if posting about your boredom is of any value to all your friends. It’s understood that the list will itself understand which information is of value and which can be ignored. The wall posting is seen as just that – a post, and not likened to a person in a room or a coffee house saying something to someone. A post or a tweet has value as an item in a list that needs to be check-marked either with a Like or a smiley or a one-liner.

There is no barometer to measure and ascertain whether your presence is ‘valued’ in the ‘corporeal’ sense – you are present as a body on the other side of the screen, but only really represented through your posts. Offline, a look, gesture or nod conveys fully well a response; silence (in this case, deletions) are not the usual responses to a spoken word. How do you measure the impact of a ‘seen’ or Like? In simple terms, I think Facebook does away with the offline value of courtesy or empathy. Critically, it has given rise to a new breed of conversationalist: the lurker. Offline, you do have the odd person in the group who does most of the listening and chips in with a laugh or just nods their head. However, lurking as a defined ‘online’ behaviour, as characterized by consistent lack of engagement, is quite peculiar to the world of Facebook. What does it say about a system’s emotional quotient when half the posts, comments and conversations pinned on The Wall are subject to only being read, scrolled over or worst, manually hidden / deleted as if the words never existed? What sort of a system consciously engineers a space where a person’s output – her words, ideas, opinions – are not subject to a response? What are the implications of subscribing to and evolving towards a culture of constant stimuli with no visible response? That’s the space where loneliness is born.

Facebook cloaks itself as a platform that is alive and teeming with people all engaged and interconnected with one another. What I see, however, is an aggregate service, which culls our data and archives it. Our every little outpouring might be more important to the servers and algorithms than to our own network. I fear the sum total of what I am will just be a footnote in the codices of the Web. That smallness that we experience when we measure ourselves against the vastness of the universe is nothing but loneliness. If we learn to cope with that sense of insecurity on Facebook and others of its kind, then we are set for long term innings within the network. The point is, while the trade-off from face to interface might not be what we anticipated when we invented these devices, perhaps a guide or toolkit or a ‘Wiki’ resource to adapting to a new way of communication is something that should be penciled in for generations of people who are in the transition phase. Crowdsourcing, anyone?

This is the unabridged version of the article that appears in ‘Home Alone’: Digital Natives with a Cause newsletter | Volume 10 Issue 1 | Hyper-connected, yet hyper-lonely? http://cis-india.org/digital-natives/dn-newsletter-volume-10-issue-1.pdf via The Centre for Internet & Society, India

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One thought on “Facetime to Facebook: Social Cohesion Inside the Digital Network

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