This week has been filled with news stories that make me sigh. Since everyone keeps asking me about them, I feel the need to comment. Scratch that, rant.
Let’s start with the Economist’s Primates on Facebook. This article is framed around Robin Dunbar’s classic work published in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Dunbar argued for a parallel between humans gossiping and monkeys grooming. He found that there appeared to be a cap of how many people one could maintain in one’s network. This “Dunbar number” never referred to how many people you could possibly know, but how many people you could actively “groom.” Your contacts on Facebook are not equivalent to the people you groom. These can contain close and dear friends, but it can also be used as a rolodex for ties you don’t actively maintain.
The bigger issue is that performed network ties (“Friends”) are NOT the same as the personal networks that sociologists and anthropologists have historically measured and theorized about. Comparing them is futile at best and dangerous at worst. The Economist article mixes apples and oranges, creating a sense that the networks people maintain are the same that they perform through the public articulation of contacts. Marlow’s work is extremely interesting, but the framing of this piece is problematic. One of the reasons that I wrote Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 back in the day was to highlight that Friends and friends are different. I think that we need to keep remembering this.
And then there’s the discussion of Lady Greenfield’s claims that social network sites are “infantilising” the human mind. She made a speech to the House of Lords to encourage people to research her hypothesis. There is NO EVIDENCE to prove her claims. Listening to her talk, it is very clear to me that she has no idea how social network sites work. She bemoans users’ practice of collecting friends on social media, saying that no one _really_ has that many friends. She claims that today’s youth are spending more time with social network sites than any previous generation spent with TV or rock-n-roll (with no evidence to back that claim). She clearly doesn’t understand how people are using these, how they are being integrated into people’s lives. Nor does she have evidence for her claims. But the press has picked up her call to action as a formal report, often juxtaposing it with the MacArthur Digital Youth Report as a counterpoint. I find this deeply frustrating because I think that the fears of how the brain are being reworked are driven by a misunderstanding of youth engagement with social media.
That said, I think that there’s something to be said for how today’s youth are thinking differently than their parent’s generation. But I don’t think that it’s simply “caused” by new technologies. I think that we’re living in a society that has different priorities and I think that multi-tasking is more deeply prioritized than sustained attention by professional circles today. I think that we are being trained to be “creative” thinkers rather than productive doers and I think that this means that we are encouraged to draw connections between new things. I think that we are living in an environment that is structurally divided and that sociality is increasingly mediated. But I don’t think that the technology is to blame. I would argue that we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer. When the computer lets us get access to our friends, we look like we’re addicted to the computer. I think that a lot of the claims that are being made about the technology have more to do with systemic factors in today’s lifestyle. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we focus on the technology instead of the larger systemic picture.
Anyhow, I’m disappointed that the coverage of social media continues to be so sensational. Le sigh.
Italian Translation of this blog post:
Quando si decontestualizza la ricerca
traduzione di Luisa Doplicher, revisione di Isabella Zani
Questa settimana sono uscite moltissime notizie di quelle che fanno sospirare ohimè. E visto che tutti continuano a chiedermi cosa ne penso, mi sa che devo proprio dire la mia. Leviamoci questo sfizio, partiamo con la tirata.
Cominciamo con l’articolo dell’Economist intitolato Primates on Facebook [in inglese], basato sull’ormai classico scritto di Robin Dunbar ne La nascita del linguaggio e la babele delle lingue. Dunbar tracciava un parallelismo tra gli esseri umani che spettegolano e le scimmie che si spulciano a vicenda, affermando che a quanto pare esiste un limite al numero di persone che si riescono a mantenere nella propria rete di amicizie. Questo «numero di Dunbar» non si riferiva mai al numero di persone che è possibile conoscere, ma a quelle che si riescono effettivamente a «spulciare». I nostri contatti su Facebook non corrispondono alle persone che spulciamo: possono includere amici intimi e persone care, ma Facebook si può anche usare come agenda di contatti che di fatto non coltiviamo.
Il punto centrale è che i legami stretti sui social network (gli Amici) NON coincidono con le cerchie di amicizie personali storicamente oggetto di misure e teorie sociologiche e antropologiche. Confrontarli è inutile nel migliore dei casi, dannoso nel peggiore. L’articolo dell’Economist mette insieme pere e mele, dando l’impressione che coltivare una cerchia di amicizie personali sia identico al crearsene una tramite la pubblica gestione di contatti. Il lavoro di Marlow è interessantissimo, ma la base teorica di quell’articolo è discutibile. Uno dei motivi per cui tempo fa ho scritto Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 [in inglese], era proprio sottolineare che gli Amici sono diversi dagli amici: bisogna continuare a ricordarselo.
E poi c’è la discussione sulle tesi di Lady Greenfield, secondo la quale i social network “infantilizzano” la mente umana [in inglese]. La baronessa ha tenuto un discorso alla Camera dei Lord per incoraggiare studi della sua ipotesi: ma non c’è ALCUNA PROVA che corrobori le sue affermazioni. Ad ascoltare il suo discorso, mi sembra chiarissimo che Lady Greenfield non ha alcuna idea del funzionamento dei social media: deplora l’abitudine di collezionare amici in quel contesto, dicendo che nessuno in realtà ha così tanti amici, e sostiene che oggi i giovani passano più tempo sui social network di quanto ne passassero le generazioni precedenti davanti alla tv o a sentire musica rock (senza citare prove a sostegno di quest’affermazione). È chiaro che non capisce come la gente usi i social network, come questi vengano integrati nella vita delle persone: e non fornisce prove di quanto sostiene. Però la stampa ha preso la sua chiamata alle armi per una relazione formale, accostandola spesso al MacArthur Digital Youth Report [in inglese] nel ruolo di altra campana. Cosa che trovo molto irritante, perché mi sembra che i timori di lavaggio del cervello siano guidati da un equivoco rispetto al modo in cui i giovani interagiscono con i social media.
Detto questo, penso ci sia davvero una grossa differenza tra il modo di pensare dei giovani di oggi e quello dei loro genitori: ma non credo che le nuove tecnologie ne siano la causa. Credo che la società in cui viviamo abbia priorità diverse e che al giorno d’oggi l’ambiente lavorativo metta molta più enfasi sul multi-tasking che sull’attenzione prolungata. Penso ci preparino a diventare pensatori «creativi» invece di esecutori produttivi; e secondo me vuol dire che ci incoraggiano a tracciare collegamenti fra cose nuove. Credo che viviamo in un sistema dalla struttura frammentata e che l’interazione sociale sia sempre più mediata. Ma non penso che la colpa sia della tecnologia. Direi che noi siamo dipendenti dai nostri amici, non dal computer; solo che quando lo usiamo come mezzo per raggiungere gli amici, pare che siamo dipendenti dal computer. Credo che molte tesi riguardanti le nuove tecnologie siano molto più legate a fattori intrinseci allo stile di vita odierno; e credo non giovi a nessuno concentrarsi sulla tecnologia anziché allargare lo studio al complesso di questi fattori intrinseci.
Comunque, il sensazionalismo con cui i mezzi di informazione continuano a trattare i social media è proprio deludente. Ohimì ohimè.
I propose an alternative hypothesis for Lady Greenfield: Membership in the House of Lords infantilizes the human mind. Data collection for that study should be fairly simple.
I hate that too, when popular coverage of my research topic is sensationalized. Oh, wait, no one ever writes about my research topic. Talk about Le sigh! 😉
Dunbar’s number is overused and de-contextualised by so many groups of people, including social media people or marketers that the theory has a life of its own. Just check the wikipedia page for example…. It happens the same with Granovetter’s “Weak Ties” article.
I explained that in a recent blog note in french “Dunbar’s number, Marketing, and the web’s martingals”, and tried to show how marketers are mis-quoting and mis-reading legitimate research texts.
Well written. Reminds me of the discussion around media education that for instance Green and Hannon referred to in the Demos report TheirSpace (www.demos.co.uk/publications/theirspace): the obsession to decide whether new media is good or bad, whether it is destroying or saving our children.
The difference between Friends and friends has become rather obvious in the last year or so when Facebook has gone from really popular to really everyone. One can witness situations when people join Facebook now, use it like emailing with friends and cause awkward situations by talking about something too private on your wall. That said, I just love its functionality for maintaining loose affiliations to a large number of people. But as you said, it is rather far from the logic of friendship.
The press has read the MacArthur report on Youth and Social media? *That*’s the news!
I mean: old grumpy lady talking sh*t about youngsters misbehaving, that was hot news in 1562; journos over-loading the fragile boat of a techno-panick and then blaming everyone else for boarding it, that was hot news in 1812; press discovering social science, editors realising that science can be something else then physicists blowing up expensive stuff, or doctors worrying about cancer (not that either aren’t news worthy, mind you) – that’s new!
The War Against Ignorance^TM opened a new front! The Alliance for Understanding and Comprehension (AUC) has a new Legion! Hurray!
More seriously: decontextualising a result is what happens all the time: in good seminars, with some care (Could this apply to?); in most, not so much. We’d be allowed to blame others for missing the point when they’ll be a compulsive section, after the abstract called “What this paper/chapter is *not* about.” – and my take would be that most of referees’ discussion will be to fill this section.
Coincidences… I just wrote about Dunbar and the different types of social networks: the emergent one (interaction based) and the affiliation one (connections). 🙂 My argument was the same as yours: they are not equal. Dunbar’s number is related to the ability of keeping friends not connections. You can have as many connections as you want in the Internet, the key point is that you still interact with a few actors, in a stable network, usually very geographically localized and usually also strongly attached to offline networks.
Anyways, from the non-sociological guys on social networks the first paper I’ve ever seen talking about these differences we are long used to in social sciences was Huberman on Twitter. Have you seen it? Still, there is a lot to be said. 🙂
You despair far too quickly. Here are some comments to Lady Greenfeld:
“That’s exactly what my mum said about reading the Beano.”
“This is absolute nonsense. Just what is this “Lady Greenfield” basing her arguments on? Nowhere in the article does it mention what research she did (if any). The whole thing is “She said that…”, “She warned that…” “She fears…”
Just what kind of a “scientist” is she? This sounds to me like a tirade made in front of the House of Lords, to which her social status gives her access, and based entirely on her own beliefs (and probably total ignorance on the subject save for a dislike of new ways of communicating).
I am surprised that The Guardian has published this. It is at best sloppy journalism, and at worst, absolute drivel.”
“Is there any actual evidence to back up your claims Ms Greenfield? You may be a professor of neuroscience but surely you should still do some experiments before you go making sensationalist claims that will be taken more seriously than most due to your public authority on the brain.
To be honest your words remind me of peoples fears that television was going to turn each generation into mindless zombies, a fear which seems to crop up with each generation regardless of the fact that the previous one seems to have turned out perfectly ok. Moreover, you seem to believe that these children will be somehow without any social interactions somehow, when surely they will be interacting with their peers and teachers every day at school and with their familes and friends at home for a far larger portion of the day than could be spent on the computer. By making this unsubstantiated stand you will surely be unnecessarily worrying anxious parents who (from the MMR vaccination scare etc etc) we have already seen to be ready to overreact to even the suggestion of risk to their children.”
“6 reasons why I don’t mind having my brain ‘infantilised’
Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 6 random things, facts, habits, or goals Facebook has given you. At the end, choose 6 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.
(OK, I am sorry, childish joke, but it made you smile, no?)
1. Replace the world ‘Facebook’ in this article with the world ‘telephone’, ‘Big Brother’, ‘Spice Girls’, ‘Internet’ (*add your own favourite cultural phenomenon here*);
2. If FB does lead to short attention spans, then people will just get bored and move on to something else, and FB will be a thing of the past. Problem solved;
3. Neuropsychologist can read what they want from the recent cultural explosion of Facebook. Doesn’t mean what they have to say is groundbreaking or important;
4. FB is just another medium for a soap opera / reality tv . And like most cultural phenomenons, it will die down. Look at the use of email – email is the new retro;
5. Those that enjoy it, use it, those that don’t, do other things.
At least FB allows me to giggle and smile more than Big Brother or Eastenders ever has; and
6. Besides, FB is a great way of breaking down geographical boundaries and being influenced by what is going in ‘grassroots’-type way, see what is available to do in other worlds aside you’re own. It’s healthy for people to escape from their geographical bubble, even if they only do it virtually.
7. I read this article from a link on Facebook, and will probably post my reply on my profile page. Does that make me stupid/ evil/ lazy/ self-centered/ self-destructive for choosing to erode my identity? Who cares?
I think one of the major issues is that the “fogey generation” makes sense and creates meaning from the ground of a society founded on linearity, limitation, and simplistic sequential causality. On the other hand, the generation that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate makes sense and creates meaning from a ground of multiple feedback and feedforward loops, non-scarcity, and complexity. The same phenomenon is perceived differently by each group. Lady Greenfield is entirely correct in making the meaning she does. It’s just not the meaning that is made by those who do not subscribe to fogeyness in their analysis.
It’s interesting that, when faced with a new medium, people so consistently try to draw comparisons to pre-existing structures. Maybe it’s human nature, to try to relate something new back to something old in order to speed the process of trying to understand the new… and maybe it’s just certain people who CAN’T wrap their minds around newer situations and so try to force a square peg through a round hole. Either way, it winds up doing a disservice to the world at large to spread these faulty comparisons around. Unfortunately, it’s the “social phenomenon X is evil!” stories that get the news; calm, rational explorations don’t have the catchy taglines to get attention.
Except… “Friends aren’t friends” maybe…
Freaking out over the “social media changes people’s brains!” line makes me wonder why nobody bothers to ask whether the change might be for the better.
I think there’s probably an innate fear among most people of their “brain changing.” This is elsewise known as “learning.”
I would support such wild accusations if they led to more research. Heck, as much as it bugged me when Clinton said video games could be hurting our children, her solution was to fund research. I think we can take as a given that Facebook (Twitter, etc.) is changing the way young people think. Which is a great reason to fund–as MacArthur is already doing–research on how digital technologies are changing the way young people think with social technologies.
A colleague about ten years ago was interviewed by a local tv reporter, who asked him “The Internet: good? or bad?” The changes to kids heads are just that: changes. We should do more to understand them, because it may be that we can make their experiences richer, to their individual betterment and the progress of society. But until we know what those changes are–in some detail–it’s impossible to guide them to better outcomes.
Finally, I think there is a lot of fear not just among the general fogey group, but more academic fogies to. Some psychologists seem to happily playing into the the most recent moral panic (Twitter means you have a poor self concept!) because it gives them a chance–ironically–to feel as if they are relevant.
I feel your frustration and perhaps it is because the naysayers have not seen the good that social network sites can provide. We have never lived in a time where we can have such great interaction and contact and develop wonderful relationships like we do today. I think that in years to come we will see a lot of research that shows that those that those that have a healthy engagement with social networking sites are overall more happy. We are a social species and having a venue in which we can be social is a wonderful thing.
We are only at the beginning of what will be and the naysayers need to look beyond fearing the change and look for what positive outcomes can come of it.
Thanks for voicing your thoughts on this issue danah.
Cheers – Eric
Le sigh is right! Thank you so much for being a voice of reason amongst all the ridiculous social media coverage this last week. I’ve been looking forward to hearing you weigh in; particularly after Lady Greenfield’s nonsense. Everything she had to say, if not blatantly wrong, was at least undocumented, and her concern about real-time communication was just comical. As I pointed out in my own rant, is she not communicating in real time when she talks to her friends face to face?? (http://oneseventeenmedia.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/social-networking-disolves-your-brain-riiiiiight/) I still think this could be great material for SNL.
From your many thoughtful points, I particularly liked this one: “I would argue that we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer. When the computer lets us get access to our friends, we look like we’re addicted to the computer.” You are entirely correct. From my early days of dial up and life on AOL 2.0, I didn’t spend hours trying to get a connection because I liked the sounds of my modem kicking into gear, but because it was an access point for fantastic conversation with so many different kinds of people (friends and strangers) with different ideas to share.
Thanks for your insight! You’re an incredibly valuable and important voice in this field!
Further to the “addicted to friends” appearing as “addicted to computer,” I can actually remember when the same issue came up with respect to being addicted to the telephone, especially among housewives of the 1950s and 60s (yes, I’m that old). When a woman was almost literally married to her house – housebound, caring for the children and household duties – the telephone was her only means of social connection with peers. Women were often ridiculed for always being “on the telephone,” much like youth are ridiculed for always being “on the computer” (and even this phrase is a retrieval of the old complaint).
The question of the friends list is interesting.
People clearly use these lists for wide varieties of different purposes. Sometimes this is made explicit. “This profile is for people I actually know – add me at this other profile if you are a fan, or wish to network professionally, etc.”
At least on MySpace, there are minimal or no tools to allow the user fine controls over kinds of “friends”. And so, especially for people who have any kind of public or semi-public visibility, the friends list can get badly out of control – leading to announced or unannounced mass deletions. Supposedly Facebook has a more nuanced setup, which appears to be evolving almost daily. I don’t participate there so I can’t comment.
The really interesting thing to me is to view the friends list issue through the lens of “continuous versus discrete”, or in cyber-language “analog versus digital”.
Real world associations have the quality that they can be almost infinitely nuanced, and those nuances can change continuously – “on the fly”. I recall when I was young I constantly puzzled over questions like what exactly does it mean to be “going steady”. As an Asperger’s Syndrome victim, I sought formal categories for everything. What I eventually figured out, years later, is that nobody actually uses a set of rules to determine what “going steady” means. Such things are infinitely nuanced.
(And I really think there is some merit to the muted but persistent criticism that digital culture has been designed disproportionately by and for those with various varieties of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and this has resulted in an autistic “flavor” to cyber-culture that affects even those who have no biological predisposition toward ASD).
But, that aside, I think we are already taking a conceptual risk by even attempting to formalize categories of relationships in the course of doing social research and social theory. In the words of the immortal Firesign Theater “They’ve got in taken apart, stacked up, and labeled!”. (Quote is from Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.) Meaning that once you make a living system stand still long enough to categorize, you are now studying something dead.
But at least social theorists and social researchers are (in principle) professionally trained to be aware of such conceptual risks and minimize the inevitable distortions of knowledge that are created. (Folk wisdom calls this “taking it with a grain of salt”). SNS designers, in contrast have no such restraint. They plunge blindly forward into the thicket of trying to digitize the infinitely fluid.
It almost puts me in mind of Ptolemaic epicycles. Ptolemy, for those who might not know the story, was an influential pre-Copernican astronomical theorist who tried to define planetary paths entirely in terms of circular motion. Whenever he and his school came up with an observation that couldn’t be fitted into their scheme, they would invent a set of smaller circles (“epicycles”) to superimpose over their existing model to generate a closer fit to reality. Since it is now known that planetary orbits are elliptical, it’s clear that they could have refined their model indefinitely.
So, with the SNS sites and their quest to create a digital map of the brawling fluxing chaos that is actual human interaction. They can refine their model to the point of total user interface gridlock (And Facebook may be headed there), and they still will never create a system that lets users express the kind of relationships that actually exist – because infinitely nuanced phenomena can’t be expressed algorithmically. Period, end of story.
(If you infer from this that I view the strong AI hypothesis askance, you have much to go on).
Just a thought,
“On the other hand, the generation that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate…”
I have to object to this characterization. It would be valid only under the assumption that human bandwidth is effectively infinite – which assumption obviously fails. A more correct characterization would indicate that non local connections can now occur in a much wider variety of contexts – but our total socialization opportunities are still limited by time and attention, if no longer strictly by space. They structure somewhat differently, that’s all.
And, I completely fail to see the any necessary conceptual connections between mobile communications on the one hand and looping causal paradigms and ideologies of abundance on the other.
Mark – if it is the same Mark, also makes a later post appearing to criticize various flavors of the “media addiction” paradigm.
I’m curious that TV addiction was left out. This is completely real. I can’t have a TV in my home, because, if I let myself, I can get completely sucked into the programming to the exclusion of doing anything constructive. Sure, not everybody has such a problem, just like not everybody is a compulsive gambler or video gamer. But for those who do – it is very real.
I was particularly disappointed with Susan Greenfield for her preposterous statements. Her closing statement in the Guardian:
“It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world.”
I found this quite amusing, as she appears to be railing against the brain’s wonderful plasticity, and our ability to adapt to changing conditions. This is the beauty of evolution, surely, that we can evolve just as rapidly as our cultural/technological context changes.
In any case, it’s well known that one of the major reasons children are resorting to digital playgrounds is because many parents in Western countries are no longer allowed to socialiase in physical spaces without parental control. No moral panic about that going on yet though, which I think is rather telling.
“I think that a lot of the claims that are being made about the technology have more to do with systemic factors in today’s lifestyle. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we focus on the technology instead of the larger systemic picture.”
I agree. Especially in relation to the kinds of social issues linked to social media and social networking. As a teacher of young adults and youth, I do observe a lot of attention seeking and disinhibition in their online expression. That said, those behaviours are characteristic of adolescent and young adult social development so they are not particular to social media.
In terms of the larger systemic picture, I think we all ought to start talking about social media in relation to social life, society and socialistion – and all the factors that influence who and what we are at this particular moment. Politically, socially, culturally and otherwise.
Our youth are bombarded by the most aggressive marketing of any generation and I see them maxing out their credit cards to keep up with a contrived and classist “cool” many of them simply cannot afford. Combine this with the crude social darwinism so transparent in corporate cultural production (most reality tv), which tells them life is just one big competition with winners, losers and judges.
Competition, cruelty, consumerism, status, wealth, popularity. These are the themes of corporate culture, not people culture. If the youth are acting like sociopaths we ought to look at where they’re getting it.
While I do believe that the design of social tools can contribute to some of this (i.e., “followers” not “community”), what happens in an online social space is just a mirror of the behaviours and ideas they’ve already internalised from our toxic culture.
“That said, I think that there’s something to be said for how today’s youth are thinking differently than their parent’s generation. But I don’t think that it’s simply “caused” by new technologies.”
While I agree to an extent, I also see McLuhan’s POV to be valid.
Technology allows us to connect in the manner with which it works. And by using it, we rearrange parts of ourselves to conform to that specific technology. IE, share in 140 characters on twitter, choose our top 8 friends on myspace, choose to reveal ourselves to certain people, as a certain personality through Facebook wall posts.
While we have different values than previous generations, the manner in which we are able to express them, technology, definetely shapes our ideas of how to express them. And, in turn, I think that can drastically reshape us as human beings.
For instance, the amount of time we spend looking into the details of other people’s lives via Facebook. 10 years ago, this would have been perceived as creepy, an activity of stalkers. Today, we can gain the same insight by looking at our Facebook news feed. In this case, the technology has essentially legitimized this deep level of attention on the lives of others. And as generations grow up accustomed to this, the creepiness will seem foreign.
Your comment, “I would argue that we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer. When the computer lets us get access to our friends, we look like we’re addicted to the computer,” stands at the crux of what people like Lady Greenfield don’t understand. As Mark and Darby touched on, Lady Greenfield is looking at new social phenomena through an outdated lens, and can’t see the benefits of larger systemic changes in light of new and foreign technologies. Online networks aren’t removing us from our existing real-life relationships; rather they are expanding and enhancing the relationships we create in the physical realm. Lady Greenfield can’t conceive of the large friend networks we create online because those networks are almost impossible to maintain via the phone or similar technologies. She can’t conceive of the kind of ambient intimacy afforded by social media because the communication she’s used to is much more linear and deliberate.
As Eric Dewhirst commented, these new technologies are allowing us to connect in previously inconceivable ways, and we need to focus on the implications of these changes in enhancing our social structures rather than sensationalizing and fearing change itself.