Much has been written about technology’s role in fostering social isolation, but is it possible that those books, academic papers and popular songs were wrong all along? According to a study released Nov. 4 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the answer is a resounding yes. Researchers concluded that the use of cell phones and online social networks actual compels people to be more sociable.
The study looked at people’s tendency to visit public places of their own accord – including cafes, parks and volunteer centers – as it corresponds to their use of cell phones and social-networking sites. As it turned out, “techies” were more likely to be sociable than the average American.
These findings shouldn’t surprise those of us familiar with the major social networking sites and the people who use them on a daily basis. I know very few people who sit around at home and constantly hit refresh on Facebook and Twitter. On the other hand, I know plenty of people who tweet their opinions from concerts, share their favorite news articles, and generally use social networks from their mobile phones.
If anything, I’ve found that Facebook and Twitter have helped to prolong friendships that might have otherwise dwindled away to nothing. Wall updates and pointed tweets are a fine way to stay in contact with acquaintances even when a piece of news doesn’t warrant a phone call.
As New York Times tech blogger Stefanie Olsen points out, the Pew study found that regular mobile phone users generally have a close circle of friends that’s 12 percent larger than that of non-users.
To me, it seems counterintuitive that people should view technology as an isolating force. In an attempt to understand that viewpoint, I tried to think of as many examples of media that portrayed advanced technology in a negative light as I could. I believe we can trace this school of thought back to the Industrial Revolution, when unskilled workers in America and Europe found their livelihoods evaporating at the hands of automatic processes. Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby the Scrivener” addresses the plight of a legal copyist whose occupation is systematically phased out before his very eyes.
At worst, advanced technology can create temporary job displacement and a general feeling of unease. But does that equate to social isolation and loneliness? Not necessarily. In his seminal 1995 essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam posits that children are spending more time playing video games and watching TV in a solitary state than ever before. In Putnam’s view, this results in a lack of engagement with “civic organizations” such as social clubs and even bowling leagues.
Putnam began noticing that more and more people were bowling alone and thus missing out on the civic discourse and social interaction that inevitably occur in a bowling league. However, it’s possible that Putnam’s entire argument is flawed at its foundation. When I was growing up, I played far fewer videogames than most of my friends, but that didn’t mean I was more social.
In fact, most of the time my friends and I would play videogames together in multiplayer mode, racing to the finish in Mario Kart and playing out our fantasies of becoming a secret agent in GoldenEye. Though I agree we kept our civic discourse to a minimum, it’s undeniable that social interaction was taking place.
Again, the results of the Pew study don’t seem surprising to someone who has grown up with access to the Internet and cell phones. It’s not that people of my generation and the next are less social – just that we pursue our social interactions in a whole new way.