Bill Keller responds to my objections to his comments about social media

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.


Dear Zeynep,

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.


18 thoughts on “Bill Keller responds to my objections to his comments about social media

  1. replqwtil

    The question I see raised by Bill Keller in this response is one of New Strong Ties. While it seems clear that the internet and social media serve to maintain ties, both weak and strong, it is not at all clear that people online are able to form New strong ties through the intermediary of the network. Strong ties seem to remain something which must be forged offline, face to face.

    Its this important difference between New ties, and Old ties that I see as central to Keller’s point. Time spent Maintaining relationships online is time one cannot spend Creating new strong ties offline. It is unclear to me whether weak ties can be strengthened to become Strong ties online, but they Certainly can be offline.

    Perhaps this smacks of dualism, but it seems clear that there is a real difference between time spent online and off. And even though they are both able to mutually support each other, I personally see Strong ties as something which must still be created primarily offline.

    What are some other thoughts on this difference between Creating and Maintaining ties, particularly strong ties?

    1. andee

      IMO, supported by some research, including mine on couples who met online:
      Yes, strong ties can grow from weak ties online, definitely. Usually these progress from online to phone and then to meeting person to person, and so they don’t stay exclusively online. The question of goals is paramount too. Are people looking for strong ties or not? Are they seeking lasting relationships or friendships? These can be built from online contacts.

      1. replqwtil

        Very true! Situations such as those really start to break down the fact that the entire argument is predicated on a tight split between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ interactions. However, as you point out, different interactions in different media can be layered one on top of the other to create much deeper communications and links between people.

        The whole point Keller is making just seems flimsier and flimsier the longer I think about it, and particularly from reading all the comments about it. The dichotomy of online and offline friends and relationships is just a construct by which to judge one over the other, but relationships in real life are much more complicated and mediated by a variety of technologies.

        Imagine someone arguing that time spent writing a letter to your friend is time that you’re wasting when you could be interacting with your ‘real life’ friends that are geographically closer. Make the same argument for the telephone, or for travel! But introduce the term ‘online’, and suddenly you don’t look half as idiotic…

  2. Jillian C. York

    I’m going to be the first to jump in and make a generational argument. For me, at age 29, social media is not just a means of keeping in touch with old, “real life” friends and strengthening more casual relationships…it’s a means of keeping friends at all.

    Since I graduated from high school and left my hometown eleven years ago, I’ve lived in at least six cities. My current job, and my previous one, both required significant global travel. Frankly speaking, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to make friends.

    What that means for me is that my social networks help me keep in touch with people I’ve met in those six cities along the way (along with occasional visits and phone calls), but also help me make new friends each time I move to or visit a new locale.

    In other words, they’re invaluable.

    So while I would agree with Keller in a sense–there’s nothing I love more than sitting outdoors with my friends and drinking wine–the reality is that without that time on Facebook (or Twitter, or even Gmail), I wouldn’t really have friends.

    1. Sedate Me

      Yes, it’s an unfortunate fact that our over-hurried lives get in the way of our social lives. Jobs, family responsibilities and the electronic drugs we use to “unwind” from them consume all our time. Friendships made when you had the free time and opportunity to actually make true friends (ie school) naturally disappear when you no longer have that time. You’re lucky if you can hold onto a couple of them in any significant way. This has probably been the case since the dawn of the industrial era, but it’s undoubtedly gotten worse over time.

      Once you hit the workforce and engage in breeding, unless you choose to neglect your responsibilities, your social life is essentially over. Other than a neighbour or old friends with close geographic proximity and/or no responsibilities, the best most can hope for are second rate substitutes. That includes things like “work-friendships”, pen-pals and old friends you see once every three years…and on-line relationships.

      “Social media” is more of a rear-guard action than anything else. It is a tool that, with widely varying results, buys your friendships more time purely because it’s slightly quicker and more convenient than older methods of letter writing, phone calls and post cards (which still work as good as ever).

      But it does NOTHING to change the underlying fact that work & family responsibilities (and a lack of geographic proximity) make friendships and maintaining a social life extremely difficult. While perfect use of “social media” may prolong the inevitable or offer a substitute, it’s still a poor substitute for the real thing. On the flip side, poor use of “social media” comes at the expense of your responsibilities and even the friendships maintained by it. (ie conversing with 240 Facebook “friends” instead of your 6 real friends who are on Facebook) The convenience effect can actually eat up whatever it gained and then some.

      Ultimately, you still only have so much time and you have to ration it very wisely.

  3. Bobbie Johnson

    While Keller says you mischaracterized his argument, it’s perhaps amusing that I find Keller’s characterization of your argument equally (if not more) incorrect.

    His use of “200 Facebook friends” rather than, say, “your friends on Facebook” implies that Facebook friends are somehow of less value than real world friends. The research you pointed to, and (crucially) the argument you actually made, is that these groups are far from mutually exclusive: indeed, most online socializing is done with people we are friends with offline. Therefore time spent with your friends on Facebook is time spent with your real world friends and (if we assume that a message to a friend sent during the afternoon).

    This seems to me to be a fundamental misprision of both the literature and the reality of the way most people use social networks. Keller has previously encapsulated his thesis as “Facebook is diminishing real friendship” — an argument which it seems to me places particular values on “real friendship” and “diminishing”, yet it seems to me that he believes these are qualitative and forever undefinable.

    My pet theory (which I suppose has as much validity as Keller’s) is that journalists — of which I am one — often struggle with social networking because we are used to having very large asymmetric networks. We are aware of far fewer people than people who are aware of us. Our notion of social networking is therefore warped because we are followed by more people than we can follow, which is to say more people than we can cope with. But the truth is that our experiences are not most people’s experiences, and where we are overwhelmed by very weak ties most people are merely reinforcing pre-existing ones.

    I’m glad he is reaching out to a few of the people he has spent the last while jabbing the finger at, and I share with him the dread of the hooting crowd and how some media are shaped to encourage unseemly behavior (though I see that phenomenon, in the end, as much a part of 24 hour news culture or dashed off, provocative newspaper op-eds). The mob is in us.

    But I do not see in his comments here a particularly thoughtful response — merely an attempt to keep the sands shifting in order to reinforce a tenuous, and largely anecdotal, theory.

    1. jkd

      “…merely an attempt to keep the sands shifting in order to reinforce a tenuous, and largely anecdotal, theory.”

      Bingo. In fact anecdote is the whole key to his argument – “your fancy book-learning might say this, but in my experience…” – and he seems to be making a real effort to not just read the results but the actual implications of, e.g., Barry Wellman’s work.

      Also, in RE:Jillian –

      “there’s nothing I love more than sitting outdoors with my friends and drinking wine–the reality is that without that time on Facebook (or Twitter, or even Gmail), I wouldn’t really have friends.”

      I’ll offer a concurring opinion – without the range of mediated communications I’m able to use, there would be no sitting outside drinking wine. That’s how it happens! And this was just what I found in my own (still recent-ish) dissertation research on how and when undergrads use social media. Mostly, it’s to facilitate hanging out.

      And as a final note – I think this generational divide is also evident in the extreme in his kind-of-snotty sign-off – “And now I have to go earn a pay check.” As if engaging in a public dialogue on an important social and cultural issue is somehow not part of his job as Executive Editor of the New York Times.

      1. Sedate Me

        Or, maybe he just wrote it WHILE HE WAS AT WORK. The New York Times does not pay him to write blog posts for somebody else’s blog. They pay him to run a major newspaper (aka “earn his pay cheque”). Debating with people who dismiss what he has to say will not get today’s newspaper published, nor will it sell a single additional paper. Doing anything else is “not earning his pay cheque”.

        It’s not his job to endlessly blather about how great social media is. It’s arguably not even part of his job to write a piece discussing “an important social and cultural issue” like a popular form of communication that is primarily used to help friends “facilitate hanging out”. Hey, why not a retrospective on the importance of grocery store bulletin boards or telephone poles where people announce garage sales and post pictures of missing pets? That’s the kind of front page news New Yorkers just can’t live without!

        “without the range of mediated communications I’m able to use, there would be no sitting outside drinking wine.”

        That’s right. Before Facebook, nobody ever sat on porches drinking wine. Indeed, neither wine nor porches existed before Facebook and the Twit Zone made them possible. If social media disappeared (Zuckerberg forbid!), so too would wine and porches, as people would no longer be capable of putting them to use.

        The more mediated your life is, the better it will be, right?

        His use of “200 Facebook friends” rather than, say, “your friends on Facebook” implies that Facebook friends are somehow of less value than real world friends.

        Perhaps because they are. I’m sure this will really hurt and may result in uncontrollable shaking, but turn off your computer (and whatever else) for a few weeks. What good are those Facebook friends now? Turn to an actual friend. See how long it takes to spot the difference.

        A “Facebook friend” and a “real world friend on Facebook” are two totally different things. A Facebook Friend is somebody you only come in contact with via Facebook. For whatever these Friends are actually worth, they are only worth it while you’re on Facebook. A real world friend who is also on Facebook is worth what they are worth on Facebook AND continue to be worth that (and more) when you’re not on Facebook. They can be experienced as whole people, not just on-line facades. As long as people live in the real world and inhabit real bodies in real places, that is a vital distinction.

        If there is any intentional misleading going on, it’s on the part of Facebook. Instead of using neutral terms like “contacts”, they chose to imply a deeper connection than what was really there by choosing “friend”. This was done in order to associate deeper emotions with their product in a quest for profit.

  4. David Auerbach

    His response strikes me as defensive and beside the point. Appealing to subjective measures of “superficiality” and “quality” of friendships are a way to wave off actual data and research.

    I do not know his social circle, but I have plenty of online communications that easily beat many of my “real life” communications in depth and quality.

    And he misses the salient contextual point: that you were applauded not for proving a point, but for fighting back against a condescending and non-evidentiary dismissal from a prestigious media organization.

    Is it a good thing to be able to publicly deflate publications of authority like the New York Times? I think so, but Bill Keller probably disagrees.

    1. Todd Gitlin

      You speak of “actual data” as if it’s easy to know much about the quality of relationships whether online or off. But this is a more subtle business than most quantitative research can get at. Keller’s anecdotes are also data. They may not be conclusive but they shouldn’t be brushed aside. That said, the various contributors to this thread who emphasize generational transition are onto something. If you grow up online, your experience of friendship is very likely different than if you got there in your 40s or 50s.

      1. David Auerbach

        I didn’t grow up online. My general experience is that the average quality of all relationships, online and off, is low, and that the exceptions are to be treasured wherever they can be found and do not restrict themselves to one domain or the other.

        Partly I brush aside Keller’s anecdotes because they come from the man who published Ross Douthat, David Brooks, William Kristol, Maureen Dowd, and Thomas Friedman. I take these to be somewhat reflective of what he considers to be high quality social discourse.

        I will take blogger/twitterers Ray Davis, Cosma Shalizi, Dahlia Lithwick, Richard Crary, Will Schofield, and many others over most Times columnists any day. And that is my anecdotal evidence.

  5. Dean C. Rowan

    A valuable discussion here, even if it’s impossible to say much of importance in the space of a comment. So, bullet points fleshed out a bit:

    1) Implicit in much of the discussion, pro and con, is the suggestion that these media, including writing, are fundamentally determinative of our social arrangements, rather than mere tools that some use beneficially and others misuse;
    2) The invocation in the earlier thread (an early comment at of Ludditism misses the point. Ludditism entails the cultivation of a skeptical view of new technologies and those who deploy them. The skepticism can be aimed at the purported novelty or the net utility. It is entirely reasonable to be wary of the Facebooks, Twitters, etc. Why should I expect Mark Zuckerberg to innovate with my interests at heart?;
    3) The equation of “having friends” with “sipping wine” is cheap and cynical, reducing friendship to the fluff of a Hallmark card. It suggests that we have a chicken/egg problem here. Perhaps “social” media acquire value as our expectations for genuine friendship decline;
    4) Nevertheless, I can’t take Keller seriously. He fails miserably to explain himself. For example, by definition the cost of new media is, precisely, an impediment to any desired activity they exclude. The implications are identical, yet he pretends otherwise. Given my point 1 above, there should be no surprise that some people aren’t using these tools optimally in their own lives. Keller’s “concern” for these people and the “quality” of their friendships (per his “observation”) shouldn’t blame the tools.

  6. Pingback: Does Talking About Tech Make Us Smarter? Study Suggests That 80,000 Years Ago, It Did - Techland -

  7. Robert K. Blechman

    As one of the fortunate few who has lived long enough to experience the mind corrupting influences of early television, golden and silver age comic books, rock and roll and marijuana, I look to the Internet and Twitter without fear or apprehension. Damage already done.

  8. Everett

    When discussing online friendships and the strength of those friendships, it’s of utmost importance to discuss the nature of the friendships. Technology is simply a tool for creating and managing friendships.

    There are friendships that I have that are really relationships based on intellectual depth and values, not necessarily physical proximity. So, even though I may be miles apart from my friends, our ability to share music, articles, books, photos, and conversations is still very strong and enhanced by all our digital resources (resources which ultimately add substance and perspective to our conversations).

    Those relationships, which I won’t even call friendships, which have been based on real shallow things like attention, group affiliation to build self-esteem, and a myriad of other shallow motives remain just what they are, shallow relationships based on shallow motives.

    When we talk about our tools and their significance, we’ve also got to talk about the nature of what we are building. If we are truly talking about loving and meaningful relationships, then tools simply give us ways to improve and enhance these very real relationships. If we are talking about more shallow relationships, these tools provide benefit as well, providing means and space for shallow and protected interactions.

    Just my thoughts.


Leave a Reply to Cedar Riener Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *