Here’s New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller responding to my points about social media and sociality. A lot of good points here and shows the value of constructive debate. I am going to respond more fully later but I wanted to make it a post of its own to give others also to have a chance to comment and make points.
I’m sorry to be so slow — at least by Twitter standards — in getting back to you. I thought before I responded I would try to read some of the research you sent my way. Having spent a couple of hours immersed in the material, I’ll give you my non-scientist’s response. But first, pause for a second to review the narrative of the past day, because it illustrates a point I’ve made on several occasions about Twitter — which I love, but don’t worship uncritically.
So, Anthony DeRosa Tweets a link to an interview in which I make a comment about Facebook. You send out a Tweet chiding me on the grounds that my remark is refuted by evidence. I chide you back for not linking to any of the evidence you have in mind. You Tweet links to a mountain of social science. The Twittersphere — before I can respond to you, and I think I can safely say without actually reading the voluminous science you have provided — applauds you for nailing me. Does this fit your definition of an enlightening discussion? Or is it more like fans at a sporting event hooting for their favorite players? Twitter is good for many things, but I’m not convinced it’s an ideal platform for serious conversation.
Just to review, my remark that provoked your response was: “The time you spend keeping up with your 200 Facebook friends is time you are not getting to know someone really well in person.” This is, of course, a difficult statement to challenge. The time you spend doing one thing is, by definition, time you are not spending doing something else. But you clearly did not mean to challenge the literal truth of my remark. As best I can tell, you where challenging what you perceived to be my implication: that Facebook is an impediment to friendship.
Was that my implication? Not really. What I’ve actually said about Facebook — in a column, a blog discussion with Nick Bilton, the interview with DeRosa and elsewhere — can be summed up this way: Social media, like all new things, come with benefits and costs. The benefits are abundant and may well outweigh the costs, but users of new technology should not shy away from discussing the tradeoffs. My sense of Facebook, not based on research but based on some experience and observation, is that for some people Facebook creates a kind of friendship that is more superficial than the kind that grows out of hours spent together in one another’s company. Of course, social media is a way to keep in touch with real friends and expand your network of more casual, less intimate relationships. But it also makes it possible to feel like you have a meaningful social life when, in reality, you are missing something. I did not offer this as a scientific fact but as an observation and a concern.
The studies you sent me had a lot of interesting material, but they did not address my concern. For starters, many of them predate the explosion of social media. A handful are as recent as 2010, but mostly they reference work done in 2006, 2004, 2002, even 1997. They are about “the Internet,” or email, or mobile phone use.
More important, these studies mostly define friendship as “network size.” Typical was this argument from Wang and Wellman:
“Friendship is still abundant. In 2002 and 2007, American adults had on average about 10 friends whom they met or spoke with at least weekly, with a few additional virtual friends and migratory friends. Despite the scholarly cautions and media panics, our data suggest that almost everyone has social ties whom they contact on a regular basis. People’s friendship network sizes vary depending on their Internet use or nonuse. In general, Internet users do not have fewer offline friends than do nonusers, as the panic- stricken media have feared.”
Likewise the Hampton/Sessions 2008 study of “Core Networks, Social Isolation, and New Media” finds no correlation between Internet and mobile phone use and “social isolation” (defined as people who can’t name anyone “with whom you discussed matters that are important to you.”) They report that people who spend time online have more contacts with such people.
Likewise the Boase 2006 study “The Strength of Internet Ties” — which looked both at the number of contacts and the regularity of contacts.
The number and diversity of your friends is not insignificant, but it’s not relevant to my point, which concerns the quality of friendships, not the quantity. I’ve never questioned that social media are excellent for reach. I have suggested that in many cases they are not conducive to depth.
So, I’m happy that my columns and comments have provoked interest and aroused argument. I LIKE argument. But you’re arguing with a point I never made.
And now I have to go earn a pay check.