". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Do You Serve Cyberspace or Does It Serve You?

I saw this article * linked on a friend's Facebook page. It is a review of a book by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, which, in reviewer Eric Felten's words, considers "whether the powerful electronic tools we are adopting may be deforming us." Felten observes that in recent years there have been a number of books on this topic but asserts that Turkle's book offers an original take on the question: "What she brings to the topic that is new is more than a decade of interviews with teens and college students in which she plumbs the psychological effect of our brave new devices on the generation that seems most comfortable with them."

Here in a nutshell are a few of the facts of today's plugged-in lifestyle that many of us are having to come to terms with:

1) The condition of constantly being "on": Between the internet, email, blogs, Facebook/MySpace, Twitter, chat, cell phones, and texting, the electronic media monster is ubiquitous.

2)The pitfalls of leaving an electronic history that can never be escaped.

3)The danger of using electronic communication as a means of avoiding human contact.

4)The need to control and manage one's public face, which can easily become an unhealthy obsession or tool for deception.

I think articles such as this raise concerns that all of us who engage in electronic communication would do well to reflect on. I have been doing that for the past few days and I encourage my readers to do the same. Here are some of the ways I personally manage (or fail to manage) each of the heads of the online monster (corresponding to the four points above):

1) Of the items in the list for #1 above, I make use of the internet for general purposes and of email, blogging, Facebook, and cell phones. I have a Twitter account but don't use it. Elephant's Child says I should delete it. Maybe I will--it was created for a certain purpose and now that purpose is gone. I keep chat turned off in email and Facebook. As much as I love my friends, I don't like being interrupted for the purpose of what is usually casual/trivial conversation when I am at the computer trying to get something purposeful done. I don't send or receive text messages (to the surprise and inconvenience of friends and non-friends alike). That is not because I decided against it on principle, but because I don't want to pay for it and I don't like typing with my thumbs. That may change when my oldest son goes to college, since he doesn't like to talk on the phone any more than I do.

My assessment of my connectedness is that I am probably more "plugged-in" than I should be. As a more-or-less stay-at-home mom, I have email and Facebook always available for the checking. They are probably my greatest temptation away from things I should be doing. I have arrived at a comfortable level of online reading, doing it mostly in the morning with my coffee or at night before I turn off the light. By not participating in online chatting or phone texting, I limit my availability to casual messaging. I don't know if I realized until reading this article how much of a help that may be to erecting a fence around my flesh and blood self to keep the online behemoth at bay. I found this quotation from the article, a teenager's lament about the inability to escape the communications of her peers, rather poignant:

Teens may embrace the peculiar sociability that the wireless computer makes possible, Ms. Turkle says, but they do so with unease and ambivalence. To put it in theater terms, they are "on" all the time, expected to respond immediately to every text, every IM, every scribble on their Facebook walls. There is no escape from the pestering, nudging, hectoring, chattering demands of being connected. Many high-schoolers are more exhausted than exhilarated by their virtual lives. "I can't imagine doing this when I get older," says one student about the hours he devotes to meeting the demands of his online social life. "How long do I have to continue doing this?"

I would say to that student, "You don't have to do it at all. You don't owe anybody, save family, that much of your time, and you can communicate with your family in other ways."

2) and 4). I think these are two sides of the same coin. If one is going to have an online presence, there is a need to moderate it. In the same way that we don't divulge our entire beings to people we meet in real life, we don't do so in cyberspace, and I think that's appropriate. We all have different "faces" that we wear for different areas of our lives, and our online life is no different. But I think as with all the other "faces" we display, we should aim for honesty and integrity in our online persona. It is natural to want to present ourselves in the best possible way. We don't go to church in sweats and hair curlers. But in our online communications we should not be dishonest about who we are, and we should be alert to the dangers of narcissism.

One of the things that helps me most in the policing of my own online communication is an awareness of audience. Every time I post something on my blog or on Facebook, I try to consider all the people that may potentially read it and to ask what the point of the post is and whether it will be constructive. I try to avoid what is known as "vague-booking": posting something online, particularly on Facebook, that only raises questions and puzzles people. I won't say that I have never done it. I have, particularly when I am feeling sorry for myself. But I am trying overall to avoid it because I think it is on a par with pouting and then not sharing what you're pouting about or enjoying inside jokes that may leave others feeling left out. Instead, on Facebook and here, I try to post things that I think might actually be interesting or enlightening or helpful to my friends and readers.

3) For me, this is probably the greatest danger of online communication. I am a strong introvert. I am shy (not all introverts are). I am not as debilitatingly shy as I was as a child, and I have learned to manage social situations much better, but I am still likely to avoid people rather than face the stress of interacting with them. I am insecure and worry excessively about what people think. So the ability to dodge human interaction by transferring communication into the electronic sphere is something that for me could be unhealthy. Cyberspace can also provide a means of avoiding things I should be paying attention to but am trying to escape because I feel depressed or overwhelmed.

On the other hand, when I think about my online life, it strikes me that I now have many more friends--and I do mean friends--than I had before I plugged in. Facebook and email enable me to keep in closer touch with them, and with some of my family, than I otherwise would. Additionally, I enjoy many more connections with people that I may not be as personally close to but to whom I nevertheless feel a bond because of shared values (political and cultural), beliefs (religious), and experience (vocational). These connections allow me to converse with fellow moms, homeschoolers, musicians, conservatives, Lutherans, and the like, and I find that for the most part these conversations build me up, encourage me in the various realms of my life, and actually draw me out of my introverted existence. You might call me a cyber-extrovert.

Nevertheless, Turkle's book sounds like it offers some excellent cautions which all of us should heed. The most important part of one's life is not to be found in a cell phone or computer. It is, rather, in the people we can see, hear, touch and yes, even smell, on a daily basis. If we ever perceive that our virtual life is crowding out or taking precedence over our physical one, it would be wise to "minimize" the one and "refresh" the other.

*I highly recommend you read the entire article. The comments of some of the interviewees are both enlightening and distressing.


Susan said...

I have long looked at this in somewhat theological terms. I can't really explain it, but there's something almost gnostic about cyber-communication and cyber-presence as opposed to real-life communication and flesh-&-blood presence. That doesn't mean internet-use is bad in every form, but it should be used carefully and in limited doses. I also think it's like coffee or tv or alcohol in that its use should be strictly monitored (or forbidden) to kids. (Do I do that as I ought? Nooo...)

Elephantschild said...


If it weren't for the horrible, no-good, nasty interwebs, I'd have gone stark raving mad by now, living where I do.

Blaming the internet when it's *people* that are misusing it seems strange to me. As quoted,
There is no escape from the pestering, nudging, hectoring, chattering demands of being connected.

Yes, there is. It's called deleting accounts, reducing the number of Facebook friends, limiting the number of blogs or people you follow or, good grief, just turning off the device. It is, in fact, quite easy to limit the ways you're connected in order to make sure you're not overwhelmed with the noise.