Culture vs. Cult: The Role of Social Media in Our Lives

In an article from October on the Huffington PostKatherine Bindley explores what role social networking and jealousy play in “your” life. Her main argument is that while Facebook is a very powerful tool to help people connect and stay connected to one another, it has equally as much capacity to effectively ruin relationships. Specifically, she points out a few main things that people tend to do (or not do), which lead to their partner to feel either jealous or uncomfortable. Some of these examples included things like over/undersharing about the relationship on the network, having tagged pictures of exes, and seeing ‘worrisome’ things on partners’ pages and assuming the worst.

With all of this, though, it becomes clear that the underlying issue is a lack of communication rather than anything Facebook itself is doing. In fact, Bindley quotes a couples therapist from San Diego, Jennine Estes as saying, “Facebook isn’t usually the problem. It’s the behaviors that are the problem.” This statement is particularly important, because it immediately takes out considerations of Facebook being the ‘active ruiner’ of relationships. Such a blame on Facebook would be a very blatant statement of what Judith Donath (and others) would describe as technological determinism. In fact, Estes goes even further, saying:

“To be clear, Facebook itself isn’t to blame for the demise of domestic bliss. Instead, it’s an avenue by which threats can develop if you fail to communicate about them, and one that can exacerbate problems that already exist.”

Again, this is a very clear way to disprove arguments of technological determinism and instead emphasise what more looks like a social shaping view of technology, where people’s usage of new technology are taken into account. Because Bindley presents this concept early on and comes back to it throughout the article, the general ‘story’ of what she writes does not blame Facebook for strains in relationships, but rather points out how people can abuse its capabilities in ways that lead to a strain of trust.

The jealousy that a boyfriend or girlfriend might feel as a result of something done on Facebook is not very different from the ‘psychological warfare’ that dana boyd describes from the MySpace ‘Top 8’ feature.  Again, however, neither boyd nor Bindley suggest that the social networks are to blame (although in the case of MySpace, it’s hard to imagine a practical use for ‘ranking’ your friends), but rather that people are quite prone to be sensitive in these publicly social spaces. Overall, then, I think she presents the possibilities of Facebook in a reasonable, objective manner.

In the film Life 2.0, however, the users of Second Life are presented in such a way that they come across as if they were members of a cult: that they got into ‘this thing,’ couldn’t stop, and may or may not have made it out. In fact, the way it was put together made me think of the movie Jonestown, (trailer below)  where the people who joined the ‘People’s Temple’ cult were vulnerable for some number of reasons, found a comfortable, welcoming environment in the cult, eventually found out that it was ‘bad,’ and either made it out or didn’t (although obviously there was no mass suicide shown in Life 2.0). Although the stories presented in Life 2.0 had varying areas of success, I felt like the filmmakers generally presented Second Life as something that could be very dangerous, and that it was best to get out of it rather than lose all touch with reality.

Because of the way Second Life seemed to be shown as ‘dangerous’ in the film, I would argue that it takes more of a technologically deterministic view, where people have little or no control of what they are doing once they sign up for the game. To avoid this, the filmmaker could have shown a few people who use Second Life casually and who still maintain normal relationships with other people. This would have given proof that there is nothing inherently wrong with Second Life, but that it may bring out underlying social issues in some people who play it. In fact, I would imagine (or hope) that the stories shown in the film were extreme cases chosen to exhibit an entertaining yet disturbing look into the lives of Second Life addicts, posing them as an ‘other’ character for people to laugh at and maybe feel better about their own interpersonal relationships.

Given these two differing perspectives on social media, I think it is important to study these areas through an unbiased lens and present all sides of the story. Rather than present the audience with predetermined judgements, it would be better to show people how a social network works in its most basic form and how people have changed and adapted this, but most importantly, that all these uses are different for everyone.

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Lying by Omission

Fortunately for us, during this past week, America celebrated the most romantic day of the year: Valentine’s Day. During this Hallmark holiday, the web is overrun by fake touching love stories and cliché creative how-to guides, however if you put in a little effort and do a little digging, you might be able to find an article or two with actual blog-worthy content.

On Valentine’s Day, news source Mashable released a video that focused on a study done at Brigham Young University that concerns the effect of online role-playing games on marriages. According to Mashable, the study concluded that 3 out of 4 spouses of online games wished their partner would “put more time into their marriages than their avatars.” Mashable also reports that the primary reason for why online role-playing games negatively affect marriages is not because of the amount of time the gaming spouse spends online but the amount of time the couples spend arguing and disrupting bedtime routine. However Mashable ends the video on a more positive note pointing out that not all relationships suffer from online role-playing games; in relationships where both partners play, gaming actually strengthens the relationship.

For a one minute video Mashable does a fair job in presenting what are probably the most interesting findings of the BYU study, however judging by the title of the video “Study Shows Online Role-Playing Can Damage Marriage,” and the fact that they spent eighty percent of the video discussing the possible damages shows Mashable placed an emphasis on the negative impacts of online role-playing game. From a business perspective, that would have been the appropriate way to market the video since the common view towards online role-playing games and people who play online role-playing games are generally negative and people like to read things that confirm their beliefs, however from an academic standpoint, Mashable’s biased presentation is misleading and can be considered an example of lying by omission.

This also occurred in the film Life 2.0. Like the Mashable video, it portrayed online role-playing games and its players in a very negative light by focusing only on failing stories of Second Life, but in reality, there are a lot of success stories stemming from Second Life. In 2008, Wired Magazine published a story about Second Life user Amanda Baggs who is autistic and does not speak. However when she plays Second Life, she has no problem communicating and behaves like what we consider normal social behavior. This has forced scientists to rethink autism and turn to new unconventional ways to communicate with autistic patients. This made absolutely no appearance in Life 2.0 even though it made headlines back in 2008 and really put Second Life on the map.

Because I found the BYU study interesting but the Mashable video lacking in more details, I searched for more content revolving the study on Google and found on Slate an article titled “How Playing Online Video Games Can Help Your Marriage.” This article is based on the same study as Mashable’s video however the title implies a positive conclusion had come out of this study. This article also goes more in depth than the video in how the study was conducted and not only does it touch on how online role-playing games have a positive impact but it also touches on the negative impacts giving a better complete overview of the findings.

Because one source is an article and one source is a video, it reminded me of our discussion in class regarding social cues and its importance. Many folks find face-to-face interactions more informing because seeing the person’s facial expressions and body movements helps us determine the message’s meaning more clearly however in this case, the article was much more clear than the video even though I was able to see the presenter as he spoke about the content in the Mashable video. This reminded me that even though we spend so much time worrying about what social cues may be omitted in certain mediums, we need to also focus on the source of the message and whether or not content is being omitted. If the content is distorted or tampered with, it doesn’t matter if the receiver understands the message or not because it is ultimately false. I feel like we’ve lost sight of what the purpose of communication is and are too wrapped up in the medium rather than the validity of the content.

It’s Not Official Unless it’s on Facebook.

Watching Life 2.0 reminded me of many simulation games that I have played and experienced including: Neopets, Sims, Counter Strike, WOW, etc. There are many platforms that allow relationships, similar to the ones discussed in Second Life, to develop. It is very easy to get caught up in these virtual worlds and become part of the communities surrounding it. This is especially true if it is a game because it allows players to freely express themselves and their imagination without boundaries. We began discussing in class the perspectives the director uses to portray the people in the film. One of the biggest flaws is the over dramatization of the situations presented. The most dramatized situation was the love story of Amy and Steven, where they are the narrators of their story. They are shown within Second Life as their avatars and we see their fantastical relationship developed through their imaginations. Throughout class, many were laughing and found their relationship to be humorous. Amy is often portrayed as giggling and a little ditzy and Steven is slow and easygoing, it is a very surreal love that the audience witnesses. We also find their adjustments to their relationship in the real world to be funny and we could infer that they would not work out. Although it seems that the director may be exploiting their emotions, I think it is important in showing how emotionally attached one cam become. It solidifies the realness of the situation that is being portrayed.

The article I have chosen is from USA Today, “Social media can both help and hurt real-life relationships”, by psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser. She writes about different aspects of relationships that could be tarnished by social media. The article is humorous and I don’t know if it should be taken seriously. However, it is clear that she believes that social media, specifically, Facebook, is an important part of a relationship. She gives the example of “full disclosure” where your partner should publicly display your relationship in their social network. Basically her article redefines relationships and integrates them into social networking. Kaiser understands the growing importance of establishing not only individual identities but making connections between couples in real life into couples online. She also suggests that social media can hinder trust issues between partners. I think it is true that social media is an individual and personal thing that we do. We have discussed in class the different personalities and identities we take on while networking. She suggests freely opening up e-mails, texts, and even Facebook, so there is no privacy between partners. She takes a very open approach to relationship problems, and although she understands the importance of social media, I don’t think she understands the importance of how singular social networking is. I would say it has a lot to do with the fact that she is a woman so her solutions to the problems she poses are a little skewed.

I think both situations focus strongly on the emotional aspects of interpersonal relationships and social media. Not only are couples connected in the virtual world or networking sites but their bond has more at stake. They have real commitments, they see each other in real life, and their virtual connections are more emotional with each other than they would have with other people. Is there a rising importance in establishing relationships in social media? I would assume so because social networking platforms often reflect real connections and situations. You can’t be married in real life and still single online; it needs to be parallel. Unless there is a motive for your online identity to be single.

How Your Relationship gets Caught Up in the “Web” (and Eaten by Spiders)

Being a single old spinster gal, I haven’t experienced much of the drama or tension underlying the convergence of romantic relationships and social media.  On a subconscious level, however, I have always been acutely aware of it.  Each time Facebook relays relationship information about my peers, I am mesmerized.  I don’t have to know the people well, and I like to think my relatively insignificant level of “Facebook stalking” has spared me the red-flag level of voyeurism that plagues plenty of people on many social networking sites, but that is one thing that strangely captivates me.  I’m intrigued by what people will and won’t reveal about their relationships, how they publicly interact with their significant others over social networks, and how they interact with other people of the opposite sex when they are clearly (or not) in relationships.  This is why I was particularly interested when I found a local Colorado NBC News article, “Social media can both help and hurt real-life relationships.”  Having just watched the utterly disturbing documentary Life 2.0, this timely article piqued my interest.

The article begins by addressing the magnitude of how many people are using social media today, and on that note, seeks to issue a friendly Valentine’s Day warning: “Social networking sites can open a Pandora’s box of relationship destroyers – unleashing everything from affairs, the rekindling of past toxic relationships, jealousy, imaginary online relationships that replace face-to-face intimacy, and online stalking, to name just a few.”  That’s a pretty daunting “few.”  The rest of the article lists bullet points of the most common relationship problems developed or exacerbated through social media.  They begin with words like “Trust” or “It’s Permanent,” and follow with a definition of what that means and why it’s ominous.  While those theories are relatively interesting (and may be a good lesson for the legions of negligent internet idiots out there, what is slightly more interesting to me than the actual content of the article is the way in which it was written.

The article was undoubtedly written from a negative perspective on the role social media plays in relationships.  The bulk of the article comprises the problems caused by social media, and how and why to avoid them.  The other significant portion of the article builds up the importance and usage of social media, so as to frame the subsequent argument in the utmost profound context.  A reader begins with the notion of “wow, social media plays SUCH a huge role in my (and virtually everybody else’s) life—I really can’t imagine life without it.”  Then, they are hit with a cautionary warning about how their relationships are in jeopardy as a result of using those precise networks.  The beginning sends a message of profundity, community and solidarity, which is then shaken with fear over something highly personal, and issues stemming from things that most people are in some way guilty of doing.  What I love is that right before issuing the cautionary warning, the writer inserts a blind, uncorroborated “The potential to enhance intimate connections is unlimited.”  Despite the “unlimited” positive possibilities, the writer neglects to insert just one (Facebook sexting, anybody?).  And yet, negative consequences are doled out like they were kugel at a Yom Kippur break-the-fast.  There is definitely a clear bias.

Even the words selected to demonstrate the problems are spun.  One bullet features the bolded words “Full disclosure.”  Last I checked, this article wasn’t a legal briefing.  And the point the author is trying to make is that significant others should be public and honest about their relationship status on social networks.  Why they didn’t merely use the term “Honesty” is something I will be scratching my head about for the next while.  I do think that picking something so serious and negative sounding makes the issue sound worse.

Another interesting component of this article is that we don’t even know who the writer is, yet they have taken the liberty of giving the world some much-needed advice.  I don’t know how credible they are as relationship experts, but their suggestion surrounding trust issues is that “if a trust issue has come up and your relationship is potentially on the line, both partners should be willing to share e-mails, Facebook and text messages to provide reassurance.”  I may not be experienced in dating in the age of dominating social media, but I’m pretty sure that is a creepy suggestion.  At least for relationships that are not marriages.  And maybe even for marriages.  Regardless, that is a bold suggestion to make without readers even knowing the background of the writer.  I would feel more inclined to follow the advice of Sue Johanson, since I at least know who she is and that she is credible (though she is bizarre and makes me moderately uncomfortable).

I’m happy to read this article after viewing Life 2.0, because I think it reaffirms how I initially felt about the film.  I was upset by how biased people felt it was.  I felt like it was pretty honest.  Perhaps it felt negative because the truth is not pretty.  I thought it was fairly realistic, and as honest as the context and goals would allow for.  They did not ignore the positive components of the site (as a certain biased article mentioned above did…).  Even the people who had was one might construe as “sad” endings had happy and glorifying moments.  I think that is what I felt made it click.  I think people may not have appreciated the lack of coverage of users who went on Second Life “in moderation,” however, I’m quite certain that those types of people were not meant to be the means or ends of the documentary.  The goal was to depict three different (but probably common) types of situations for heavy users.  And in that frame, I think we got a pretty comprehensive view of what their lives, their behaviors, and their backgrounds entail.  It’s interesting how that kind of a film gets shot down by so many viewers because it is so bitterly honest, and yet people will glaze over an article like the one listed above and just mindlessly slurp up all the tips.  I will cease to be amazed by how little people can recognize what they are actually being manipulated by—but then again, it’s all subjective and nothing is without bias, so that is just my humble opinion.

I, Facebook

This article, which recently appeared on the website of Men’s Health and has spread across Facebook like a wild fire, references a research study presented at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The findings indicate that those who ranked their satisfaction with life after reading their Facebook news feed were much less content with the state of things than those who did not view their friends’ status updates. Researchers also found that happiness declined significantly when users’ friend count exceeded 354 (the “tipping point”). They concluded that because we often judge personal success in comparison to our peers, and Facebook only offers positive self-generated spin of any given person’s circumstances, it hits our self-esteem hard.

This piece positions Facebook in a similar way as that of Second Life in Life 2.0. That is to say, these platforms are deemed absolutely essential to the everyday lives of certain individuals. In the case studies of the film, those individuals either made their living from playing Second Life, were incapable of overcoming repression in the non-virtual world and so turned to Second Life, or engaged in questionable personal relationships in Second Life that may or may not have happy endings. Among the suggestions made by the author of the study in the Men’s Health article, reducing time spent on Facebook or cutting out the social network altogether are not to be found, because apparently those simply aren’t viable options anymore. One must simply try to adjust how their time on Facebook is spent. Try and eliminate the worst of the braggarts, or stick to only the best of your best friends, and hope against hope that someone’s overly positive (and most likely exaggerated) status update won’t send you into a tailspin of depression, denial, anger and self-pity.

The author does not make a definitive judgment as to whether Facebook is causing an entire generation to morph into hot messes with Woody Allen-level neuroses, or whether our already present neuroses have simply integrated themselves into our Facebook use. Nonetheless, I believe that the current state of our social lives being intertwined with social networks is here to stay. That’s not to say it would be impossible to sign off; of course, any of us could choose to press the button (or in the case of Facebook, five separate buttons, over which Facebook will BEG you to stay and remind you that you are welcome back anytime. Kool-Aid, anyone?). But for someone of my generation, a whole host of problems arise when discussion begins of “quitting” Facebook (I use quotes because it actually is quite impossible to have them delete all traces of you without possibility of return).

I am unsure as to whether the discourse surrounding social networks should be one of an addiction and its addicts, or simply another trend or fad that has spread far and wide. This could be attributed to addicts rarely refusing to admit they have a problem. There’s no doubt I’m ashamed of the time I spend on Facebook and other social networks per day, but I also doubt that, barring some incapacitating and horrific accident rendering my fingers unable to type, I am going to decrease time spent online anytime soon. Dan Hoopes“4 Things to Consider Before Deleting Your Facebook Profile” definitely places a point in the pro-addiction theory column. He writes: “Leaving it [Facebook] creates withdrawal not for Facebook itself, but for the aspects of social life it facilitated, and made impossible without it, betting that users will always return just because of the sheer immensity of their existence that is contained within its servers.” The words “sheer immensity of their existence” have haunted me since reading Hoopes’ piece. The amount of time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, stress, anxiety, and money we place into social networks translates into the very essence of us existing solely via these platforms. It’s not even much of a stretch to say we define ourselves (and others) by our social media existence; as I alluded to in my last blog post, it is increasingly the case that if I’m not friends with someone on Facebook (or have at least creeped on their profile), there’s a good chance I’m unaware of their existence entirely. The fact that virtual funerals are held for Second Life avatars points further to the idea that it is a living part of us that exists on these networks.

Hoopes concludes his article by saying, “It’s not that I miss being able to immediately convey any thought or feeling instantly to nearly every person in my life, it’s that I miss the chance, however remote, that they would choose to do the same to me.” Is a mass exodus from social media forthcoming? I think not. I, for one, am far too frightened of the possibilities. I Facebook, therefore I am.