Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Facebook’s greatest accomplishment may be a massive change in the scale of human interaction

Facebook certainly did at least one thing: it gave users connections to more individuals than humans have ever had before.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The giants of the social web—Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram; Google and its subsidiary YouTube; and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—have achieved success by being dogmatically value-neutral in their pursuit of what I’ll call megascale. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that it needed not just a very large user base, but a tremendous one, unprecedented in size. That decision set Facebook on a path to escape velocity, to a tipping point where it can harm society just by existing…

The on-again, off-again Facebook executive Chris Cox once talked about the “magic number” for start-ups, and how after a company surpasses 150 employees, things go sideways. “I’ve talked to so many start-up CEOs that after they pass this number, weird stuff starts to happen,” he said at a conference in 2016. This idea comes from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argued that 148 is the maximum number of stable social connections a person can maintain. If we were to apply that same logic to the stability of a social platform, what number would we find?

“I think the sweet spot is 20 to 20,000 people,” the writer and internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who has spent much of his adult life thinking about how to build a better web, told me. “It’s hard to have any degree of real connectivity after that.”

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users.

For much of human history, social interaction included only a relatively small number of people. The interactions occurred in a small geographic space. Some exchange in terms of news, trade, and people happened but not on the fast, global scale of which we are accustomed to today.

Facebook and other social media companies allow users access to thousands, if not millions, of users. Even as users have some choice about these connections, the possibilities are unprecedented. If humans found it daunting in the nineteenth century to encounter growing big cities (and early sociologists looked to explain the massive social changes connected to urban society and interaction), how do we comprehend all of the possible interactions today?

Some research suggests that even if users could access all these connections, they do not necessarily do so. Do Facebook users or Twitter users or other social media users regularly interact with people they do not know or do they primarily stick to people they know and/or known sources? Actually stepping across boundaries may be easier in the social media realm but they are still boundaries.

Does this suggest that humans cannot interact with global communities? Or, is this interaction not possible on an individual level and instead needs to be mediated through institutions, such as mass media or governments or corporations? Facebook’s experiences may just be helping people think about how to broaden connections without overwhelming those involved.

Bringing McMansion critique to TikTok

McMansionHell was a web favorite when it launched. Now criticizing McMansions works on TikTok:

Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com

TikTok user @cyberexboyfriend is every realtor’s worst nightmare.

On his account, which boasts 32,000 followers and counting, he hosts a popular series in which he tears apart random McMansions he finds on Zillow.

It all started on Nov. 3, when @cyberexboyfriend posted a video captioned “roasting homes on Zillow.”…

Easily the funniest and most viral video in the series to date is the one in which @cyberexboyfriend critiques a $675,000 four-bedroom home, also located in Mckinney, Texas.

It is easy to criticize McMansions. They can have cartoonish features, ranging from turrets to garish facades to oversized garages to odd proportions. Much effort is put into their facades with less attention paid to other sides of the home. The interior may have some questionable choices. In an era of hot takes, social media, and concerns about housing and inequality, a quick skewering of a McMansion draws attention.

On the other hand, these real estate listings are for real homes. Numerous American communities, often wealthier suburbs, have McMansions. And at least a few people are willing to buy them.

Does this approach to McMansions help more people avoid purchasing such homes, either because the social stigma is potentially higher or because they are alerted to the problems with McMansions? Or, does it reinforce existing views people have about McMansions?

I have suggested before that if people had to choose between modernist homes and McMansions, they might choose McMansions. Those who criticize McMansions publicly are not likely to live in or near such homes. If you are against McMansions, you might also have concerns about sprawling suburbs and instead prefer denser suburban communities and cool styles like midcentury modern, interesting ranch homes, or older more traditional styles.

This may ultimately come down to taste in single-family homes based on social class, access to resources, and experiences with different kinds of communities. While political polarization in the suburbs is real, polarization by home style could be present alongside it.

64% of Americans “say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country” – but does this mean individual users will leave?

Pew Research recently released a new report on how Americans view social media’s effects on the country and politics. Here is one of the takeaways from the report:

This chart moves beyond many of the other takeaways which suggest majorities of Americans are skeptical about the intertwining of social media companies and politics. The responses to this particular question suggests the effect of social media is beyond politics: it affects “the way things are going in the country today.”

Since the other questions are about politics and government regulation, it is a little hard to know exactly what this means. Is it bad for young people? Families? Communities? Education? Public spaces? Physical health? It takes up a lot of time? Social media is too powerful compared to other institutions that should be leading the way?

All of these could be very interesting to explore. But, it is also worth examining how this question about social media and the direction of the country is related to the social media use of individual users. Does this mean that more people are not participating in social media? Are accounts being deactivated or deleted? Are people curtailing their time on social media? Is there interest in and movement toward more conversation outside of social media?

One finding of research I have conducted with sociologist Peter Mundey is that young adult social media users can articulate some of the problems with social media. And they modify their social media behavior to try to avoid negative interactions.

But, this does not necessarily mean that they drop out of social media or do not join in the first place. These young adults could also explain the advantages of social media, particularly the ability to maintain connections with people. Some of the connections may not always require effort but they are available. Other connections, say with family and close friends, are worth engaging in through social media. Plus, if they are not on social media, they might be missing out on social connections and events that are hard to access in other ways.

This might lead to a bit of an impasse. Americans think social media and politics is not a good mix. Social media could be bad for the country. But, withdrawing completely from social media might be a lot to ask. In many ways, it could work for individuals, particularly through providing connections to people and information.

Perhaps individual users will continue try to find ways to do both: engage with social media on a limited or focused basis. Or, avoid politics on social media. Maximize the good portions, minimize the negatives. Participate at arm’s length.

Only time will tell. Social media has had a meteoric rise but it is not guaranteed to last. Social media platforms can evolve. New opportunities can arise and social conditions are dynamic. We need to continue to look at how users engage social media. And if we see a steady trend of users leaving social media platforms, that will be worth noting.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

apple applications apps cell phone

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.com

1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)

Internet shaming vs. shaming with silent disgust

Internet shaming is popular but is it effective? One writer suggests private shame is a better route:

apps business cellphone cellular telephone

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.

Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century…

The nature of silent disgust is that you don’t hear about it. There are no viral videos of people not accepting invitations to a cookout. The lack of public shaming may seem like a disadvantage, but it is in fact an advantage—and more so now, in the era of trolling, than before. A troll is someone who gets a thrill from provoking a mob, and who prefers to provoke a mob by violating a rule that the mob holds dear. In fact, the dearer the better: that is the diseased psychology of much of public life now. Private shaming removes the transgressive joy that the troll seeks. All the confrontation happens in muttered comments, in invitations that never come, in expulsion from society without the courtesy of a notice.

And the troll, having failed, has a chance to repent, if the shaming is private. Eventually the offender notices the embarrassment of former friends—and because the disgust is silent, she can hold out hope for an equally silent restoration of social status. One day she shows up at the grocery store with a tasteful homemade mask. Or the neighbor who went to the Ozarks announces casually that he is quarantining for a couple of weeks, just to be on the safe side.

As a sociologist, the first thing that sticks out to me about the description of private shaming above is that it relies on social interactions between people who know each other or within specific communities. Internet shaming allows people far and wide to weigh in. Private shaming takes place within existing social bonds. People today may have fewer social bonds or communities but they still have some and are not just people floating around social media or the Internet without anchors to other people.

A second sociological feature of above: there is an opportunity to repent or restore those social bonds. The surrounding people or community register the disgust and then the actor has an opportunity to respond. They may still disagree with the shame they received but since it is done within existing bonds, it may be harder to completely sever the relationship.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Shame these days is complicated. In some instances, we would not want to provoke shame, such as within children. In other instances, promoting shame is seen by many as good to prompt change.

2. If you want to read more about the earlier days of Internet and social media shaming, I recommend Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Chicago suburb feared COVID-19 facility in empty hotel

Building on earlier posts on COVID-19 NIMBYism and COVID-19 in suburbs, I return to a particular suburban case: many residents in the Chicago suburb of Itasca opposed a 2019 proposal for a drug rehab facility in an empty hotel. In recent days, concern mounted as the community thought that same hotel could become a facility to treat COVID-19:

The fate of a shuttered hotel in Itasca took another strange turn this week when local officials briefly thought it might be used to quarantine COVID-19 patients suffering mild symptoms or those at heightened risk from the virus.

It turned out to be a false rumor, but its circulation illustrates the opaque process through which government officials are trying to line up buildings for use in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has asked its county-level counterparts to create “an alternative housing plan” to assist at least 25 people. The federal government would reimburse counties for sheltering those who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 but don’t require hospitalization, and “asymptomatic high-risk individuals needing social distancing as a precautionary measure.”

Some counties, though, aren’t saying much about their searches. Asked for specifics, a spokesman for the DuPage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said only that “we are working with our municipal agencies to identify needs as well as identifying potential community partners for potential housing.”

Read on for more details of official letters from the mayor to the medical company and back, bureaucratic vagueness, sharing theories on a local Facebook group, and the official denial.

Given how this played out, is it a wonder that some officials might follow an “opaque process”? If a county or state feels they need a facility as it has particular advantages, opposition from local residents could make it very difficult to move forward.

According to the DuPage County Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard (as of 4/10/20), Itasca had seven cases of COVID-19. This is where the typical NIMBY concerns – reduced property values, a threat to an existing way of life or the character of the community – makes less sense: COVID-19 is present in Itasca. Granted, it is less present there than in other DuPage County communities. But, a facility in Itasca could be helpful for local residents. The same question arose with the proposed drug treatment facility; is drug rehab an issue in Itasca, surrounding suburbs, and DuPage County or is it only an issue that occurs elsewhere? In both of these cases, the medical conditions can affect people across all sorts of communities.

Palaces for the People, Part 4: Facebook community versus physical community

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. Today, I highlight the last of four passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

Returning to social media toward the end of the book and specifically discussing Facebook, Klinenberg suggests online interaction is not a good substitute for interaction in real space in real time:

But no matter how the site’s designers tweak Facebook content, the human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust, and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with “friends” online. (212)

This is a regular theme in the book: social media interaction cannot match social interaction that takes place face-to-face in real places.

I would guess social media platforms will try really hard in the next few years to change their platforms to encourage more positive social interactions. Some users already work hard to avoid negative interactions. Facebook, for example, is pushing community groups more. Instagram is hiding likes. Twitter is allowing people to hide responses to their posts. Will this all work? Possibly. But, Klinenberg argues that all of these efforts can only go so far. Humans will still need physical places that encourage interaction, trust, and new ideas.

Imagine social media in ten years that is primarily made up of positive interactions. Perhaps then it will be criticized for largely hiding negative emotions or conflict. Perhaps it be dull in the way that endlessly cheery stories might be. Or perhaps it will be seen as a supplement to offline relationships rather than competition for them.

Another way to think about Klinenberg’s ideas: what do public spaces need to be in order to entice people away from social media? There are ingredients that make public spaces more interesting such as a regular flow of people, a variety of activity, a human scale, and perceived safety. Do we have enough of these to truly people people way from their smartphones and if not, how much work would it take to develop spaces like this all over the country?

Palaces for the People, Part 1: building relationships in physical proximity

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:

Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)

Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.

This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.

Suburban movements fight for and against selling marijuana in communities

Chicago area suburbs considering whether to allow marijuana sales within municipal boundaries have encountered efforts from residents on both sides of the issue:

An “Opt Out” movement that began in Naperville has spawned similar efforts in several other communities across the North, Northwest and West suburbs, pleading with city councils and village boards to ban the sales of adult-use marijuana within their boundaries…

An “Opt In” movement, though in some cases less overtly organized or connected, is present in many places, too, and just as passionate about its message that recreational marijuana stores should be allowed…

At the heart of the opt out effort, supporters say, is a desire to protect children from the potential harms of normalized marijuana use..

Supporters promote the value of potential tax revenue for municipal projects and point out marijuana use and possession will be legal no matter where the stores set up.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like the speed by which these efforts have coalesced across suburbs is partly attributable to social media. Through different platforms, it is relatively easy to promote a particular message and alert supporters about local meetings.

2. Pitting the safety of children versus potential revenue for suburbs pits important suburban values against each other. Arguably, the suburbs are all about kids: the whole structure is set up to help them get ahead, to do better than their parents, to have good educational opportunities within a safe and family-friendly environment. At the same time, budgets are tight in many suburbs and extra revenue could help provide all sorts of civic goods (including reducing the tax burdens of residents). Which argument wins out may depend on how the suburb sees itself.

3. It is hard to know at this point where the dispensaries might be located, with or without decisions made by individual communities. At first, Illinois will award 75 licenses. Given the population of the Chicago region plus the wealth present in numerous suburban communities, where will firms want to open shop? Is it as simple as going for the wealthiest customers within a certain radius of the store or are there other considerations of the best locations for marijuana dispensaries?