Staring through a glass screen: The limits of online interaction

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If you’re ever in doubt about how pervasively social media has reconstellated the boundary lines of peer-to-peer communication, privacy, and the online/offline divide, consider the story of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide off the George Washington Bridge late last year.

When Clementi’s college roommate, Dharun Ravi, found out he was sharing dorms with a gay freshman (“Found out my roomate is gay”:22 August), he began his own voyeuristic cyber-documentary via a streaming webcam and Twitter. (“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on my web cam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay”:19 September.)

Ravi’s perverse fascination at detailing Clementi’s sexual activities escalated to advertising something of an evening’s entertainment on 21 September: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

The next day, Clementi responded, indirectly, via a six-word Facebook broadcast: “jumping off the gw bridge sorry”.

It’s hard to know how to approach a story like this, because it’s at once a case of bullying tactics gone awry, a still-persistent discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a gross invasion of personal privacy. They all connect, and it points to how powerful and potentially destructive a simple Twitter update can be in the wrong hands.

Stories like Clementi’s emphasise the urgency of articulating a new ethics about the uses and abuses of social media. And it’s not just how we use this new technology, but in a very real sense how the technology uses us, shaping the way we conceive of the very concepts of “connectivity” and “interaction”.

Already, there’s a growing research corpus on how social media channels are modifying the social and cognitive development of children and early adolescents. Dr Susan Greenfield, a Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, has been a quite vocal proponent in calling for a more specific set of internet regulations that consider the psychological impact of social media on children.

For Greenfield, social networking sites teach children a far more “sanitised” form of communication as opposed to an actual face-to-face conversation, which, she notes, is “far more perilous [because] it occurs in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses”. She says that these are precisely the kinds of conversations that “require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously.” Her conclusion? We shouldn’t underestimate how plastic the human mind is to the outside world – it’s very likely that the way children are learning to interact online will affect them in unprecedented ways.

So the paradox of social networking is that rather than create new avenues of connection and facilitate real, interpersonal exchanges, it can threaten to replace them wholesale. It’s a paradox that surely wasn’t lost on David Fincher’s film, The Social Network, in its eerie and unsettling closing sequence: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sitting alone on his computer refreshing his list of friends every few seconds, “pretending”, in the words of Peter Travers, “not to be alone”. While the social potential of Facebook is vast, its limitation is its sheer vicariousness, the sense of removal from the real presence of another.

It reminds me of my favourite computer game, the MMORPG World of Warcraft. “MMORPG” is the gaming acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, and the crux of these sorts of environments is that they’re shared with other people. Much like Facebook, Warcraft allows a user to set status updates, to track the in-game locations of friends, to chat, to form groups and guilds, and to band together with like-minded players in order to overcome objectives. The sheer immersion in the game-world is staggering: trading houses, places of worship, banks, harbours, clothiers, barbers, inns and travel points. Even the in-game price of tradable items conforms to the economics of supply and demand. And at the centre of it all of is the “real- time” interaction with other players from all over the world, for an online community must involve other people.

But like Facebook, “real time” in a digital lexicon still means mediated by a screen, and for some players it’s the limit of their peer-to-peer social engagement. An in-game friend of mine, who is 15 years old and lives in the UK, recently confessed that he spent the majority of his days on Warcraft because he found it incredibly stressful trying to connect with others in real life. For him, the digital community is his only community, and he frequently plays into the early hours of the morning until sleep exhaustion forces him to disconnect.

It certainly doesn’t mean that these online social platforms are all bad. According to Dr Lance Heath, a Cape Town-based psychologist, it’s entirely possible that they can provide introverts an easier way to develop intimacy with peers who they might not normally relate to very easily. Additionally, there’s some intriguing research into Facebook’s ability to bridge the formation of mutually beneficial relationships (what sociologists would call ‘social capital’) and maintain present friendships in ways that were not possible until now.

The point, really, is that the current iteration of social networking is changing how we connect, and its effects on the up-and-coming tech generation which thrives on one-click results and on-tap information, will be particularly pronounced.

It calls, I think, for a sensitivity in educating children that contrary to what social media might teach them, life is less one-dimensional than a collection of pithy status updates and pop-up notifications, and that the relative rigours of face-time interaction can’t be reduced to something like a neat collection of emoticons or exclamation points.

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