Falling Down the Stairs
Game Audit Pitfalls (1): Right Directions

Anti-Social Media

Social Life in Isolation Social media is everywhere – but is it social?

We immigrants into the digital world are inundated with channels of communication – text messages, email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Google+. The term ‘social media’ has been coined to refer to those platforms that allow for the exchange of what is antiseptically termed ‘user-generated content’. Usually, it is the latter half of the list above that is entailed, but I see no reason to exclude email or text messages from this consideration. If I text my friends a picture, how is that substantially different from posting it to a digital wall?

There is no doubt that some of what goes on within these channels is social, by which I mean it involves community, the enjoyment of other people’s company, or free companionship. But some of what goes on within these spaces strikes me as nothing of the kind – as anti-community, as a broadcasting of trivia rather than mutual enjoyment of one another, as vanity rather than camaraderie. For all that some sociality occurs in these spaces of discourse, I am still inclined towards concern about anti-social media.

Before expanding this thought in the context of digital media, let me start by asking whether radio and television were social or anti-social media. On the one hand, both did serve as a locus for community formation and stabilisation – at least in so much as people at the train station or at the water cooler might talk about what was on television instead of (say) the weather. It provided a minimal common ground for small talk. (Sport, which can be found on both radio and television, was and is the exemplar of this phenomenon).

Radio, more than television, served to create an illusion of community – you could call in and talk to the host, perhaps, and the very possibility that you might gave a sense of community that of course did not run deep. If you were in trouble, you would hardly call up the radio to help you! The community was one-directional, and the opportunities to contribute against the current of the content were always a tiny percentage of the flow of information taking place. The ability to call in might be a desperate hope of some kind of recognition before it could ever be considered part of a healthy community.

In the digital world, the illusion of community is all the more compelling because of the apparent symmetry of relations – everyone can talk to everyone (more or less). But this is still a very thin kind of community compared to what people who meet face-to-face can develop. There is a trade-off between the breadth of people caught in the net of a given communicative medium and and the depth of relationship that becomes possible.

A few hundred people regularly follow my blogs, and I feel a genuine sense of community with them (albeit somewhat thinner than, say, with my friends, spiritual groups etc). On Twitter, there are ten times as many people listening to me, but our discourse is curtailed to sound bites, quips and quotes – it is a still thinner community, even though dialogue occurs more often than on the blogs, not unlike chatter at a large party and chillingly similar to the MUD chatrooms of yore expanded to a global scale. On Google+, the community size is equivalent to the blogs yet the sociality feels distant. My feed churns up the nonsense shared by others, with interjections by Google+ concerning “what’s hot” – by which it means, what has lowest common denominator appeal. Dialogue occurs more readily than on the blogs, yet it feels shallow and disjointed. If it did not have utility to me as a promotional tool, I would have long since deleted it.

Then there is email, which replaces the thoughtful heart-felt content of letters with the immediacy of internet communication. I never felt that the mail I received was a burden, but now my email is all too frequently a massive pile of ‘things to do’, or at least to read and ignore. Even sorted into separate boxes (a pre-requisite for my sanity!) email is something I try to avoid except when I am working, because I am unable to keep my private life and my work life adequately separate, and this spills tensions and anxieties out into my personal life where it is far from welcome. I wouldn’t say I hate it, because I depend upon it. But its community is perhaps the coldest of all, a string of demands and robotic drool punctuated by the occasional exchange rooted in genuine friendship.

I do not feel that social media has made me more social. Compared to owning a dog, which has forced me into amiable contact with dozens of people living within walking distance of my local park, social media is a chill simulacrum of human contact. Some sociality survives here, but it is not nurtured by the medium – it forces itself through by the sheer desire we have to be with other people, even though it is also stifled by our sheer inability to do so. We suffer from what Kant termed ‘unsocial sociability’ (ungesellige Geselligkeit) – we cannot be happy alone, yet our desire to have our own way makes it hard for us to live with others.

In the so-called social media of the digital realm, we seem to achieve the recognition of others but it is little more than a prop, a number that counts our shallow connections and reassures us that we are not alone in our solitude. How could we be alone with so many channels of communication? With so much social media surely we must attain companionship? Ah, if only there were more to this than the fiction of the Facebook ‘Friends’ count. But just as the telephone offers only the promise of long distance communication and can never substitute for an immediate community relationship, social media is a surrogate for sociality. I have a strange faith that it will allow us to achieve great things – but if this is more than just a pipe dream, it will depend upon our capacity to first transcend its anti-social mediocrity.


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Okay, ignoring the fact that I'm late commenting here....

I think one of the problems is that we take the internet for granted anymore. We see the shallow interactions, but forget how amazing they are.

When I was playing MUDs in university, I had an experience that changed my life. I was chatting with someone in a game about some mechanics they had coded up, a thieves guild in an LP MUD. I asked the coder what factors affected some of the thief abilities, and he replied "wedge" (IIRC) was one one factor. I asked him what he meant, and he explained that it was an English slang term for money.

Now, I was a kid from a working class family in the Midwest U.S. The most travel I had done was a week in Mexico City as an exchange student that was covered by some of the teachers because my family couldn't afford to pay for it ourselves. But there I was, in a Midwestern U.S. university campus on a networked terminal, talking to someone *from England* in nearly real time. It boggled my mind and it made me appreciate the miracle that is the internet.

Here I am, about twenty years later. I make my living designing and coding games for the internet. I work with a company in England and have flown to London several times now. And, here I am, having a not-quite-real-time conversation with someone in England. This do change, but history does rhyme, I guess. :)

But, now we're used to the internet. We don't appreciate the changes that email, IM, or even social media have brought. People seem more interested or maybe only able to post trivia. But, we forget that we interact with a much larger group than we would have 100 years ago.

Does social media (or any internet interaction) replace what we traditionally have thought of as a "social life"? Probably not for most people. But, if you want, you can interact with a much wider variety of people than you might otherwise. And, to me, that's pretty awesome.

Psychochild: thanks for the counter-point here! This was another of those posts where I felt I might have pushed the boat out a little further than necessary - I'm grateful for some push back.

Like you, my early internet experiences were based around MUDs, and I was amazed by them. When I look at social media now, I cannot help but measure them against the MUD experience - often in a way that leaves me disappointed. On the one hand, as you say, the scope of interaction has massively increased - but I remain concerned about the quality of that interaction. I cannot escape the feeling that email means less than a letter, and that much of the exchanges on Facebook and G+ fall short of even a phone dialogue in terms of the intimacy of the encounter.

When I ponder what might be possible via the massive inter-connectivity offered by the internet, I am even more disappointed by the sense that our current social media is a better aggregator of sensationalism and novelty than it is a facilitator of dialogue. That mediocrity troubles me. Is it even plausible to consider a discussion of a major issue on social media? It seems as if it would devolve into flame wars instantaneously.

Perhaps the problem is my idealism - I want more than I'm seeing, and finding less than I'm hoping for...

Oh, and no problem with the late comment - as far as I'm concerned, these posts are fair game *whenever* someone decides to use them as the spur for a chat. :)


But, is there an inherent reason why these new forms of communication feel less intimate? Or, is it just the way we choose to treat them?

Obviously your modern experiences don't compare to older experiences. I've never been so stunned from an interaction as I was when I realized I was chatting with someone from England. I probably internalized it well, and it became the new norm.

Now, I can see how some sites do affect the depth of interaction. I'm a very mild Twitter user because it does seem to lend itself to a lot more shallow interaction. The character limit and the unrelentingly public nature of tweets seem to make it more appropriate to talk about personal trivia rather than deep meaningful discussion.

But, I think email gets a bit unfairly maligned here. I can understand that the more rapid nature lends itself to shorter messages, but I don't think that's a requirement of the media. Personally, I've had some great discussions with people via email. And, because of the nearly global reach of email, I've been able to have these discussions with people who I would likely never have met if I had lived 100 years ago.

I kind of wonder if part of the problem is that most of the social media caters to extroverts, and because extroverts are more common than introverts their usage patterns become the observable norm. Extroverts tend to prefer a large variety of less deep relationships, while introverts tend to value a smaller number of deeper relationships. So, we see the extroverts tweeting about what they ate for lunch, where the introverts (tending to be more private in nature) look for a way to connect on a more meaningful level away from public eyes.

It feels... odd... for me to be the defender of social media here. Being an introvert, I tend to want to form the deeper connections you talk about. But, I think that it can be done in some media, particularly in email. Plus, I'd rather have the relatively lighter interaction of email compared to letter writing, compared not having a connection at all.

And, yeah, I wasn't too worried about responding so late; I've done it before on your site. I just thought it was ironic that online interaction is thought of as "fast" when I was late to respond. :)

Psychochild: thanks for continuing your commentary here! Your discussion of introversion and extroversion is particularly interesting to me because my suspicion is that it is precisely introverts who get the most value out of social media (if and when they connect to it), because it provides an accessible basis for socialising - once the psychic energy barrier of being "exposed" on social media is crossed. For extroverts, a social medium like Facebook is little more than an assistant in keeping in touch with more distant contacts - as you suggest, many slightly looser connections being the modus operandi of the textbook extrovert.

But I would point out that depending upon your point of reference, introverts and extroverts are roughly evenly distributed in the populace.

I don't want to condemn social media outright - but I am interested in discussing the merits and costs of the current forms since in no single case would I consider it a clear cut case of a great or terrible thing. :)

Oh, and although I am predominantly introverted I have enjoyed Twitter for the most part, despite (perhaps because) of its shallowness. In some formats, the noise builds in the room; in Twitter, it quietly dissipates - I appreciate that ephemerality. But perhaps I am a bad test case here, since I am quite individuated on introvert-extrovert, and able to play either role as and when necessary (for all that I am more relaxed in my native introverted role). Plus, I have some weird contextual shifts that work in my favour - for instance, when I give a lecture, this is not an extroverted activity for me but merely a public display of introversion. :)

All the best!

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