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Social media: Adapting to us, not vice versa?

In his review in the New York Times of MIT Prof. Sherry Turkle’s “fascinating and readable” but “one-sided” book Alone Together – in which her mid-’90s optimism about digital media is “long gone,” he says – author Jonah Lehrer makes an important point: “We are so eager to take sides on technology, to describe the Web in utopian or dystopian terms, but maybe that’s the problem [I think so; it’s neither, and it’s ridiculous to waste any more time on that argument]. In the end, it’s just another tool,” Lehrer continues, “an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.” I agree that the conversations, the humanity, the personal and social development expressed in digital social tools aren’t new and aren’t changing anywhere near as fast as the tools are changing. In fact, Prof. Craig Watson at University of Texas, Austin, says in his blog that it’s the other way around: We’re changing the tools. He points to Turkle’s counterpoint in last weekend’s New York Times article about his Facebook study (which I mentioned here), where she’s quoted as saying his study “allows Facebook to define what makes for social behavior.” He counters that, “in fact, the story of the most successful social media platforms is how they evolve far beyond what their creators initially intended…. The data in our survey offers compelling evidence that Facebook is evolving into a multi-faceted platform connecting with nearly every aspect of our social selves.” Maybe it sounds like the easy way out, but I draw something useful from both Turkle and Watkins (who, in a disclosure says he’s a long-time fan of hers): from Turkle, caution about group think and the growing need for reflection and mindfulness amid 24/7 connection; from Watson, how much his research shows how grounded social media use is in “real life.”

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