Mission Impossible?: Fitting the Techno-Social Landscape of Our Lives into Neat Little Boxes

What can science really tell us about the complex roles of social media, technology, and computer-mediated communication in our social lives? It’s a question I’ve been increasingly asking myself.  As a scientist, my job is to deconstruct very complex phenomena into understandable components, put things in neat, little, over-simplified boxes so that we can actually begin to understand something in systematic, replicable ways. Don’t get me wrong. I love science and think the tools of science are still the best we have available to us. But there are also limitations to these tools.

In particular, I think we haven’t even begun to wrap our heads around how all the technologies we use to augment our social lives work together to create a unique social experience. For example, the social context of texting is very different from that of Facebook which is very different from the social context of blogging, etc,… Simply studying the number of hours a given person uses social media or some type of communication technology is not going to tell you a lot about that person’s life. A given person may be on Facebook 12 hours a week, avoid texting and talking on the phone,  listen to all their music on Spotify, troll YouTube videos  5 hours a week, video chat 12 times a week, and the list goes on. It seems to me that the experience of all these media, TOGETHER, makes up our full technosocial landscape; the gestalt of our lives.

So how do we start to understand each person’s unique profile of social technology use? One difference that could matter is that some of us are using technology that facilitates direct social connection and social networking (e.g., Facebook) whereas others are using technology that are more like digital analogs to the phone (e.g., texting). It probably also matters whether these technology augment or take the place of face-to-face interactions. There is an interesting post on the dailydoug blog that includes discussion of these kinds of differences.

I’m also starting to think it’s not so much the explicit social interactions we have via technology (e.g., commenting on someone’s status update on Facebook) but rather, it’s the degree to which we use technology to transport ourselves into a connected state of consciousness.  I actually think this applies to any technology – we probably all have used books, music, TV and other things to transport our consciousness and feel more connected to something bigger than ourselves. But in the case of mobile technology and social media, the nature of the game has changed in a fundamental way – communication is completely portable, deeply social, extremely fast, and set up in such a way that we feel “disconnected” if we don’t constantly check our devices.

So, how do we unpack the complex profiles of our technology use and the key role these technologies play in our sense of connection with others? What are the patterns? Are there patterns that are problematic or helpful in terms of making us all happier (and isn’t that the only thing that really matters?)? If a pattern is problematic, can we tweak it so that it becomes healthy? Are there optimal patterns for certain types of people? How can we take into account that while two people might both use Facebook 3 hours a day, they might respond to this experience completely differently (e.g., some people feel more depressed  after using Facebook because of all the social comparisons that make us feel lacking; many others just feel happy and more connected)? Are there certain combinations of technology use and face-to-face time that allow people to feel connected in a way that enriches without the burden of too many forms of communication to keep up with? I think technology burden is a deepening issue, and that many of us are starting to figure out the costs and benefits of our digitally-connected lives.

Why do I think this is so hard for Science to examine? Because it is very difficult to scientifically study non-linear phenomena – those processes that are not in the format of A influences B which in turn influences C. Instead, when you have individuals, each with a unique profile of technology use that makes up our social lives, along with all the subjective experiences and feelings that go along with it, you have a really interesting multi-level dynamic system. Sometimes when you deconstruct a system to understand its separate parts, you lose the whole. You know, the old, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In answer to my question, I don’t think this is a mission impossible. But I think it’s a mission that is incredibly rich and challenging. I’m up for trying and hope that I and others can find a way to honor these complexities by finding scientifically-valid “boxes” and approaches which are good enough to hold them.

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

 

In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

Top 7 Ways Blogging Changes My Consciousness: Meta-Blog 1

As a new blogger and as a research psychologist, I’ve been very interested in how blogging has actually changed the way I think about things, how I feel, and the choices I make. So, I decided to start tracking my experience as a user of this particular type of social media by blogging about blogging – or meta-blogging. I’m my own little case study. Here’s my Top 7:

1. I’ve been shower blogging. That is, I rehearse blogs in the shower. When I have what I think is a good idea, I stand there and practice (out loud usually) how I would blog about it. Now, one issue with this is that I don’t have pen and paper in there for obvious reasons, so I forget half of it. Eighty percent of it, really. Even when it sounds SO brilliant. Then there’s the issue of shower logic. It’s like when you dream something and it seems so perfectly logical and genius in the dream, but then you wake up and realize it was gobbledegook. Shower blogging is kind of like this for me. And there is risk attached, too: if you get really carried away, you might forget to wash some parts of your body, so that you find after a few days that your right elbow or whatever is completely filthy.

2. I have a busier mind. Shower blogging is a symptom of this. Essentially, I find myself spending much more of my mental time zooming from one thought to another, time having an internal conversation with myself, and time skimming various streams and feeds (and here I mean, Facebook and Twitter – funny how these words evoke nourishment and natural, bucolic settings….maybe a picnic by a stream?). See, this is what I’m talking about. My mind zig-zags with all its loose associations. And I cultivate that to a degree, because that’s how good ideas emerge. I think this is fine and fun in many ways, but I’m doing it A LOT more than usual, and it tires me out a bit. And I worry that I’m less present for my kids and husband and friends.

3. I’m thinking more about being mindful. An interesting side benefit of having a busier mind is that I have a greater desire now to become a more mindful person – having more stillness in my life, and spending more time in the moment. I’ve started to make meditation a deeper habit in my life again, and I’m trying very hard to keep off all devices when I’m with my kids. I don’t want to be that mom who can only give 41.5% of her attention to her kids while she multi-tasks five other things. Don’t get me wrong, moms have to multi-task – Jeez, do we ever. But my goal is that when I’m with my children and spending time, they really feel SEEN by me, really engaged with and listened to and – hopefully – understood.

4. I keep better track of interesting ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I really like this part of it. Just think how many ideas we just let go because we’re in the middle of something, or walking around, or have in the middle of a conversation and just forget. I try harder to hold onto some of these BECAUSE I think they might make an interesting topic for blogging. I’ll see if this yields anything, but already, I feel my intellectual life is enriched. As a scientist, I do this for my science ideas, but let other stuff go. I think this could be a mistake, and perhaps the ideas in one domain (e.g., science) will be enriched and in turn enrich my blogging ideas.

5. I write with an imaginary audience in mind. I can almost see their faces. Lit by the glow of their computer screens or devices. They are avidly soaking up my every word. Right….. So, essentially, I am becoming more self-centered. Is this any different from writing a letter? Maybe there is more pressure when the imaginary audience is a group or crowd? I think at this historical point in time, as a society we have a deep desire to be seen, to have our 15 minutes OR MORE, to be the next viral video or whatever, to be famous. Is blogging a way to satisfy this urge to some degree?

6. I feel cleverer. Emphasis on the “feel.” It’s pretty clear that I’m not cleverer. Although the process of putting ideas down on paper makes me feel like there is more going on up there in the old brain. I do a lot of scientific writing, and strangely enough, this does not make me feel particularly clever. Perhaps because it’s just what I do? Perhaps because with blogging, I’m using a part of my brain that has been rusty. Whatever the case, this feeling of being clever is very rewarding and I suspect it is part of my motivation to blog.

7. I feel more connected. I really do. And this is an interesting psychological phenomenon, because at this point in my blogging career, the nature of this connection is very tenuous. It’s literally in my head – an imagined web of connection, of shared ideas, of simpatico. I think for bloggers who have built a large community, this feeling is much more real. But, one has to wonder where this is all going. Online connections (that stay online) can be very emotionally satisfying, but they are more superficial and are not what the current psychology tells us is a “true” connection. They are quite a bit easier than other types of connection (i.e., face-to-face, long-term relationships and friendships), so some worry that we are withdrawing into these easier online relationships at the expense of our “real” relationships. I really don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t see it in my own life (although my husband claims I drift onto Twitter in the middle of a conversation. Oops). But this is something I’ll be watching!