Barely Scraping the Surface

Jennifer Mattern’s article, “Is Social Media Killing Personal Relationships?,” gives us a quick general overview of her opinion on how social media affects relationships. She gives both good and bad ways in which social network sites (SNS) have affected her own, personal relationships based on mere observation and usage. She suggests that closer relationships are maintained through more personal and private conduits, while more casual relationships are dealt with through social media.

I see many flaws in Mattern’s article. First of all, she uses her own personal experience, which I guess can technically be considered “participant observation,” but she leaves out the observation part and uses her “best guess” about how other people use social media. Her guess is that most people use SNS the same way as she does. Already off to a wrong start! However, I do understand that her article isn’t research-based and she is merely putting her opinion out there, but I think any opinion needs some valid evidence and not only assumptions. I will give her this though—she did a good job of surveying her readers about their thoughts and experiences, though her audience may be a little biased towards her opinions since they all are from the same or similar network.

I believe Mattern’s article could have been made stronger and a lot more though-provoking if she had reached out and fished for people who had stories about more successful and fulfilling online relationships than offline ones. A good source would be people who have gotten married after meeting on SNS or dating websites, or even just articles about online-turned-offline relationships. Any sort of general probing outside of her own experience and thoughts would have led her to make stronger arguments for either side of her topic.

Moreover, Mattern states that her deeper relationships were generally maintained through email, the phone, personal contact and snail mail, which brings up the issue of privatized vs. publicized relationships that I wish she would have explored a little more. In comparison, the film, Life 2.0, does a great job of showing a variety of accounts of the differences between online and offline relationships. Even though the film did try to show Second Life members as “weirdos” who do not really have a great grasp on reality, it does capture all of the personas that a member possesses—the person behind the computer screen, on the computer screen and away from the computer screen (interacting in the real world). Perhaps people online act differently than they would offline, hence creating deeper or shallower relationships online. Perhaps people create whole new identities online, rendering any relationship they are involved in “fake” or not genuine and unable to be transferred to the real world. Mattern takes a very technologically deterministic view of social media (Nancy Baym). She says that “social media makes it easy to get to the point and move on. And it makes it easy to provide so much “fluff” information that information overload results and you just don’t care enough to want to know more mundane things about a person’s life. So you don’t reach deeper when communicating.” In the cases we saw in Life 2.0, it seems to be the complete opposite when we’re shown how invested people become in their online relationships, even to the point where they become part of each others’ realities. Sometimes the comfort of hiding behind a screen and anonymity allows a person to open up and “reach deeper when communicating.” Mattern seems to neglect all the different types of users there are out there, and though Life 2.0 is biased and exploits the negative aspects of becoming a heavy SNS user, the film shows us three very different accounts of users and their relationship to both the online and offline worlds.

Though Mattern’s piece is meant to focus on personal relationships, she completely disregards the one thing that links two individuals together—community. In Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, she says that communities are based upon shared practices, space, resources, identities and support, and the interpersonal relationships within them. In conjunction, Danah Boyd writes in her article that “the architetcture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed.” Mattern should have taken another view and seen how communities online and offline differed and maybe seen how that might have some effect on personal relationships because the two worlds are very different social playgrounds. I understand that her article had no intent on being a research piece, but if I were to rewrite an article with a more compelling argument, I would look into many different aspects of personal relationships.

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  1. Jennifer Mattern later goes on to say that “social media in that kind of relationship — spouses, b/f and g/f, etc. — can actually improve the connection. Staying in touch with someone who’s more distant takes more work. And people are frequently lazy.” I’m having a difficult time deciphering what side she is on. As you stated that Mattern suggests that closer relationships are maintained through more personal “conduits” she also uses social media to stay close to her boyfriend while she is working. They even play “social media games” during the times they don’t see each other. I agree with you in that Mattern should have seen how communities online and offline differed in her piece of writing, but if you continued to read the comments others made below her article and examined her responses then you could see that she does look at the different “social playgrounds” to some extent.

    Social media tools do have the ability to serve as a “stepping stone to a deeper and more personal relationship” but it depends on the person and context. If one is willing to get to know the other person on that deeper level then they will put that effort in, otherwise it will just stay on that first surface level.

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