Cyber sceptics query Facebook values

The way in which people communicate online via Twitter and Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness, according to a leading American sociologist.

“A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age.

Turkle’s book has caused a sensation in the United States, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared recently on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple — technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in the US is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The critics
The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggests that use of the internet is altering the way we think and making us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

But Turkle’s book has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

Fellow critics point to many incidents to back up their argument. Recently, media coverage of the death in Brighton of Simone Back focused on a suicide note she had posted on Facebook that was seen by many of her 1 048 “friends” on the site. Yet none called for help.

But even the backlash now has a backlash, with many leaping to the defence of social media. They point out that emails, Twitter and Facebook have led to more communication, not less.

Some experts believe the debate is so fierce because social networking is a new field that has yet to develop rules and etiquette that everyone can respect and Kist has pointed out that the “real world” that many social media critics hark back to never really existed. Before everyone travelled on the bus or train with their heads buried in an iPad or a smart phone, they usually just travelled in silence.

“We did not see people spontaneously talking to strangers. They were just keeping to themselves,” Kist said. — Guardian News & Media 2010

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