The disambiguation of “social”

Photo: Bee on a Flower  Credit: Maurizio Carta
Photo: Bee on a Flower Credit: Maurizio Carta

A few weeks back, Mashable ran an article recapping a TEDTalk by MIT professor Sherry Turkle describing the erosion of social convention that social media and technology have provoked.  I thought this was an interesting  discussion to share on Twitter so I tweeted it with the headline, “Does social media make us less social?”  The lone dissenting voice of Cammi Pham wrote me back, “no it doesn’t.”  From the surprising number of “dislikes” of Dr. Terkel’s video on YouTube, it appears that many people agree with Cammi.

It’s very easy to accept an MIT professor’s words at face value, but something about Cammi’s assertion rang true for me as well.  Her words made me contemplate the idea that sociability may not have the same meaning to a younger person than it does to someone who didn’t grow up immersed in these tools.

In Dr. Turkle’s speech she mentions that social media provides an “Illusion of companionship,” that it inhibits that “development of the self,” and promotes external validation of feelings.  Many of the stories in the speech are anecdotal, but one presumes that there is sound research to substantiate many of her points (particularly with her book Alone Together published on the same topic).

As I listened to her talk. it seemed that some of her sensibility was (necessarily) rooted in the past.  I don’t think this a bad thing, particularly for a social scientist.  After all, social media is a fairly revolutionary development and there haven’t been widespread studies on its long-term effects.  Her point of view comes from examining a new phenomenon with the data we have available., in other words her work is good science.

Cammi’s viewpoint is representative of a generation that has seemingly always had social media.  Posting and consuming content is second-nature to these “millenials”.  Because of this, the context for their social interaction is different: possibly more succinct, less intimate, and more frequent.  Despite some of the correlations that Dr. Turkle draws about social media consumption, I would postulate that there are some distinct advantages to maintaining a high number of these superficial relationships but it will be many years before we know.  There may be other benefits to our hyper-connectiveness that we won’t understand for a long time as well.

I’m not a psychologist or a millenial, but when either of these discusses “sociability,” there is a good possibility that they are discussing two slightly different concepts.  And while I don’t pass judgment on the merits of either, I think Cammi Pham’s sentiments reinforce the fact (as Dr. Terkel also admits in her talk) that social media tools are the new context for the majority of our social interactions.  And as Dr. Terkel discusses at the end of her talk, our capability to maintain our traditional relationships depends upon the extent that we choose to deploy these new social tools into our lives.

(btw – If you are not connected to Cammi Pham on Twitter you are missing out!)

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • Patrick Allmond

    I am not sure I understand phrases like “social media is a fairly revolutionary development”. People have been connecting with technology for decades. What has happened recently that has overtaken us that didn’t exist 5, 10, or 20 years ago? I’ve been connecting and sharing information with people online for at least 20 years.

    • Jen H

      Social media and “connecting with technology” are two different things. I’ve been using email (connecting with technology) since the 90s. Sure, message boards have existed for awhile, too, but they generally appeal to niche audiences. What’s revolutionary about social media is that it connects the masses….it has an appeal to the general public and information has the ability to spread faster than ever before. Social media is a fairly revolutionary development. Unless you mean something different by “connecting with technology.”

      • Jim Dougherty

        Great points, Jen! You should be writing these posts! (Seriously – you should guest post!)

    • Jim Dougherty

      Patrick – you may have a point that vehicles like mass-market cell phones and smart phones are the impetus for the advent of these technologies to become so consuming.

  • Ellen Bremen

    Jim, I had to comment on this one. After all, I just wrote a whole book because I have watched students’ communication ability denigrate–and I absolutely blame texting/Facebook, etc. for some of this decline. Students in my interpersonal class have sadly admitted that their relationships are not as deep–and they realize this to be true. They don’t entirely know how to change it, nor do they necessarily feel a need to. What worries me is that not all interactions involve texting and social media, such as, of course, college and work, but students aren’t getting the practice to deal with communication in the real world. This is where students are fumbling with their interpersonal dynamics and the fault lines are revealing themselves. Therefore, I hope all educators will take responsibility for giving students assignments and opportunities that force interaction and communication, face-to-face, with others. My theory is that students (all of us, really) need to be intentional about maintaining our human connections. Social media needs to be seen as a bridge between the face-to-face or telephone interactions–not the upward replacement for them. Thank you for this thoughtful piece! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

    • Jim Dougherty

      Ellen – you would be one to see it first-hand! I wonder what the posts on your blog, will look like in five or ten years! What strikes me about the new “sociability” is the hubris that comes with it, too. So I imagine it is much more difficult to teach people who are accustomed to this type of communication and don’t see their blind spots. Thanks for your comment!

  • Bridget Willard

    I’d argue that whether or not the relationships are superficial depends on how you decide to behave online.

    We can choose to allow our social media platforms to be automated, glorified RSS feeds with a few “thanks” splashed here and there or we can allow ourselves to become vulnerable (i.e. “real”) and connect with people on a more human level.

    Social media has changed my life entirely. I’ve made friends, learned new things, developed ideas. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve mourned over the death of a friend.

    It’s up to the user. Let’s not blame the “technology” for the lack of empathy and respect for others.

    • Jim Dougherty

      Fantastic point, Bridget! The way that you use social media for Riggins Construction ( is spectacular and you do it by being genuine! I think you would be successful social media or no because of who you are – I think it will be interesting to see if people who grew up immersed in this social media find the engagement that you are describing more difficult. Thank so much for reading and commenting!

      • Bridget Willard

        You may be right. I’m in between old school and the millennials. :)

      • Bridget Willard

        And thank you for saying so. Coming from you, that is meaningful.

  • Shirsh Agarwal

    I think the problem the old generation faces is adapting to change and so would we if we were asked to live in their times. Social Media and the use of technology is one of the key reasons behind globalization which I also mentioned earlier in an article by Professor Jeremy Lipschultz. It has narrowed the gap between races and the benefits blindly outweigh the drawbacks.