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Social Media Ethnography – In Connecting are we Disconnecting?

Part of module 1 of my #squaredonline course I saw a few Ted videos, in order to reflect on our digital lives.  Because of my interest in the social sciences I found the talk by Sherry Turkle:  Connected but Alone, very revealing and thought provoking. Her premise is that mobile technologies and the way we interact with them, social media in particular,  are not only changing what we are doing but also changing the way we are.

Alone Together.

Her observations have led her to conclude, that as we spend more time on-line we are gradually removing ourselves from our emotions. The main reasons are, that we are losing  the skill to communicate and the spontaneity that comes by interacting in the non-virtual world.  The control exerted over virtual communications, by using technology to “edit”  who we are,  either by retouching audio or editing our profile, etc. Produces a group of social avatars, removed from reality, which uses technology to create “edited” selves.    Technology “cleans up” who we really are.

She posits that virtual communications has given birth to the “Goldilocks Effect” where people crave for connection but shy away from intimacy.  Hence, their social ties are  built along the lines: Not too far.  Not too close.  Just right. 

In our flight from non-virtual communication by adopting social networks as conduits to interact with each other and heavy reliance on chat, is causing the  loss of the art of  conversation by replacing it with textspeak.  This according to Sherry Turkle “really matters” because it “compromises our ability for self-reflection”. ” Self reflection is the  bedrock for self-development”. Self reflection happens when you are able to converse with the self. If you are  lacking conversational skills, this in turn  stymies your own self-  development.

Therefore she posits that now it is the time to talk. We should #reclaimconversation as a matter of urgency. This is paramount for human evolution. In this digital world we are so busy “chatting” that we don’t make time to  “talk”.

However, using mobile technologies and social media are not simply “disconnecting” us.  On the contrary.  As Stefana Broadbent research has shown, through her Ted Talk How Internet Enables Intimacy, mobile technologies are in fact bring us closer. “We worry that IM, texting, Facebook are spoiling human intimacy, but Stefana Broadbent’s research shows how communication tech is capable of cultivating deeper relationships, bringing love across barriers like distance and workplace rules.”

Stefana took us back in time, explaining that prior to the Industrial Revolution, there wasn’t a clear divide between the workplace and the personal space.  One would either tend the land and live in the land or simply live above the workshop.  Hence, many medieval cities’ streets are named after the professions that they housed. Moving forward to the industrial revolution; factories were removed from the living and personal spaces of the workers. “With the industrial revolution  there was a clear break and distinction from public and professional lives.”

Consequently, a class divide emerged.  This was reflected by the fact; the lower the status of the job the more removed you were from your personal sphere. According to Stefana “digital media re-appropriated the space of the personal sphere”.  As such digital media, is a great social equaliser.  Prior to mobile technology and social media, the moment that you entered work your social ties with family and friends were severed, apart from an occasional telephone call, that connected you temporarily  with your personal sphere.

However, now with smartphones and the ability to access social media at the workplace, one is in constant contact with their personal sphere. So much so, that has army sociologists in the US, fearful of  the repercussions for the soldierss psyches, whilst away in combat.


Stefana, believes that the immediacy afforded by digital media is such that would raise the argument for social control.  This, being a topic that deserves further debate away from this blog post.

To sum up, the use of digital media media, social media and mobile technologies, are having an impact not only socially, how we do things, but also psychologically, how we develop as humans. However, to simply state that the use of social digital media is creating a more insular individual or on the contrary, is a matter of perspective. Findings, have to be contextualised.  Societal and human development cannot simply be neatly categorised into boxes. Societal and individual development happens in waves and not always concurrently, creating a matrix of diversity and complexity.

Please do leave a comment if this post resonates with you in any way. If it stirs you positively and you feel someone else can benefit from it, feel free to share this post.

Wishing you great success


{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Linda November 13, 2013, 7:54 pm

    Some great reflections linked to theory.
    Linda´s last blog post ..Resources

  • Cris November 14, 2013, 10:49 am

    Thank you Linda.

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