Not so alone together

Here is a reprint of my recent essay on social networks  from the Read & Trust Magazine.

I went through a phase in college, as many kids do. It made my mother nervous and my high school friends wary. “That’s new for you,” an old friend said, upon running into me during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year. I had grown my hair nearly to my shoulders and dyed it red like a firetruck. Further, I had adopted combat boots, black Dickies and the self-important expression of a fool who was taking himself too seriously.

When my mother, a conservative Christian woman who found herself living with a circus freaks how asked what was going on, I said, “I’m expressing my individuality. I’m being independent.”
“You and all other freaks,” my sister said. “You’re being individuals together. You’re all alone together.”

I thought of the notion of “alone together” again last week while watching a TED talk given by Sherry Turkle. Sherry Turkle is a professor, author, consultant, researcher, and licensed clinical psychologist who has spent the last 30 years researching the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She’s also written several books on the subject, including “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.”

That’s the subject she addressed at a February, 2011 TED event. In part, she said:

“Mobile connectivity — that world of devices, always on and always on us — would mean that we would be able to basically bail out of the physical real at any time to go to all of the other places and spaces that we have available to us, and that we would want to. One man I interviewed who plays with his kids in the park while he talks to his virtual mistress on iPhone calls it ‘the life mix.’ So I guess you could say that what I’m talking about are the perils of going from multi- tasking to multi-lifing. The perils of the life mix.”

She goes on to say that many people, deep down are lonely. And technology offers “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

Sherry’s words stunned me, as I perform many of the behaviors she observes in her subjects. I have greeted my kids at the school bus while staring at a screen. I have read Harry Potter to my daughter while glancing at my iPhone out of the corner of my eye. And, I’ll be honest: I do combat loneliness and a sense of isolation with Twitter, Facebook and Path.

I can count the number of people I consider friends whom I occasionally see in person on one finger. On Path, however, 32 people call me their friend. On Facebook, it’s 208. On Twitter it’s 2,956. That’s 3,196 individuals, near and far, staring at their phones and sharing a virtual friendship with me. 3,197 people — including me — being alone together.

There’s another side to this, of course. Constant, portable connectivity combined with tools like Twitter have allowed me to create important friendships that I wouldn’t give up for the world.

I’d argue that the definition of friendship hasn’t changed, the delivery system has. Years ago, I kept in contact with far-flung friends with a phone call or a letter. Today, we send messages via text message or tweets. Does that make our relationship less valid? Does the act of conversing on a tiny screen represent an overt neglect of the what Sherry would call “the physical real?”

Of course not. The friends I have who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away are just as important to me as those who live within the same zip code. In fact, I thank the Internet and its wonderful social tools for helping me meet these people. Without it, it’s extremely unlikely that I ever would have, and my life would be a little worse than it is now as a result.

It’s also comforting to know that a kind word, help with a problem or almost any of the benefits of a friendship are a few taps away. Yes, it’s comforting to leave Twitter running in the background while I work. Especially as a home worker who doesn’t spend a lot of time with other adults (and no time in an office), that accessibility is a real comfort to me.

Online friendship can be just as valid as one conducted in person. Friendship is the same as it’s ever been, only the delivery system has changed. Today I have opportunities to connect with more people than ever, and that’s exciting. Social media is not a problem, but a benefit. I’m very happy to have it.

Read and Trust Magazine for October – Productivity

The October issue of Read and Trust Magazine is out now (affiliate link). The topic is productivity, and the contributors are David Sparks, Brett Terpstra, Matt Alexander and David Chartier.  All smart, productive folks. Brett and David recently published 60 Mountain Lion Tips, an ebook on being productive with Apple’s latest operating system.

Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to Read and Trust Magazine and benefit financially from subscriptions.