Keller’s suspicions are just wrong

By far the most obnoxious line in Bill Keller’s ornery new anti-social media New York Times Magazine column is this bit:

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering.

This kind of thing is completely forgivable in ordinary conversation; there’s nothing wrong with having this suspicion and with bringing it up in a discussion with your friends. But if you’re the editor of the nation’s leading newspaper, and making the merits of digital media your new hobby horse, it seems reasonable to ask that you look into your suspicions just a bit. Heck, have an intern do it.

It wouldn’t take long to learn that the best available research cuts against that suspicion. This 2009 survey data from Pew is still some of the best work on this subject. Their conclusions consistently undermine the thesis that social media use leads to isolation. Here’s just one bit from the Executive Summary:

Some have worried that internet use limits people’s participation in their local communities, but we find that most internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person.

There’s more at the link.

The point is that Keller’s “suspicion” doesn’t fit with what data we have. Unless he has some reason to doubt the data, or wants to clarify just why the data doesn’t capture what he’s talking about, he needs to lose the suspicion.

Also, I can’t help but counter his snark that outsourcing memory “frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like …’Real Housewives'” by reminding readers that the use of digital communication cuts into the time Americans spend watching TV, which I mentioned here.

The one critique of Keller’s that I’d love to learn more about is this:

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices.”

But nothing more is said about this, and Bjork’s quote hardly proves the theory. Has he studied this? Does he have data? If so, that would be fascinating to see! But Keller has no time for that in his rush to share the results of a little hashtag experiment. (BREAKING: There are stupid people on Twitter.)

One more bit to point out:

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

This resonates. With so much information going in one ear, it’s hard to absorb it all. One way I cope with that is by cataloguing it all on Delicious so I can go back to it. (What good stuff have I come across in the past year on intelligence?) The other way I process it is by blogging. It’s easy to skim an article and let it go in one ear and out the other. The beauty of writing is that it forces you to process it, and that the post is always there for you should you ultimately forget.

UPDATE: Zeynep Tufekci, sociology professor at U.Maryland, has a great response on her blog. She makes some fascinating points about oral vs. writing cultures (can you guess which one social media fits into?) but here she is on my above point:

Keller argues that “there is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter.” This line of argument, that our social ties are being hollowed out by digital sociality, is also fairly common. I’d like to start by saying that it is not supported by empirical research. Almost all research I have seen shows that people who are social online tend to be social offline, or at most the effect is neutral, and that most people interact socially online with people with whom they also interact offline—i.e. the relationship between online and offline sociality is mostly one of complement and reinforcement rather than displacement and replacement. Increasing numbers of people even make connections online which then they turn into offline connections (See Wang and Wellman, for example), so that even actual “virtual” connections –which I have just argued are less common—are valuable for many communities who otherwise do not have abundant peers around them, say cancer patients or gay youth in small towns.

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