Are Your “Strong Ties” Getting Weaker?

Two weeks ago, my classmate Christine Perez Soler blogged about her biggest pet peeve when it comes to social media- the Seen At… feature in Facebook chat. Christine critiqued Facebook’s addition to their messaging tool, arguing that it forces the user into uncomfortable situations, taking away the ability to “leisurely read messages without the added pressure of figuring out when to respond”. Christine goes on to explain “I have realized an increased sense of anxiety after I read messages, since I no longer feel the same sense of privacy I used to prior to this change”.

Later in the article, Christine quotes a Facebook employee who posits that the “seen at” feature is designed to make messages “more conversational”. It’s a part of a media-wide push towards “continuous interaction”, Christine writes, and it provides for another context in which the ever-present privacy debate that we humans so often find ourselves theorizing on.

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I very much enjoyed reading Christine’s blog post, and it caused me to suddenly be much more aware of the messages I receive on a hourly basis. I agree with Christine’s sentiments and I, too, feel as though there is much unnecessary pressure added to the interactions we have on the web nowadays. As Christine points out in the blog post, Nancy Baym (in her textbook, Personal Connections in the Digital Age) writes that these pressures and anxieties that Christine, myself, and countless others are feeling “arise out of the temporal structure of digital media, which seem to push us towards continuous interaction.”

The fact is, the Internet and the communication tools that make use of the Internet are rapidly evolving and changing the way that we exchange information from point-to-poin

t. Because innovations in social media (like the “Seen at” feature) give us greater amounts of information and do it faster than ever before, our strong ties to those we share the most with are growing even stronger. Caroline Hawthornthwaite, in her essay “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects” writes “The social network perspective emphasizes the importance of exchanges that support both work and social processes. A type of exchange or interaction is known as a social network relation, and pairs who maintain one or more types of relations are said to maintain a tie.” These relations that we are actively maintaining with friends, family, and coworkers are maintained just as much online on social media engines as they are in person, face-to-face. Often, when developing a form of communication such as Facebook chat, the objective of the creators is to make the communication “experience” as close to the “experience” of face-to-face communication as possible, showering the user in as much information about the interaction as possible. However, this is a paradoxical pursuit. The most accurate and decipherable mode of information transfer is done face-to-face, human to human, with no mediation whatsoever—yet in order to make the online social media experience “more conversational”, we add more and more layers of technology, actually increasing the technological “distance” between sender and receiver.

As we grow more and more capable of consuming information through our countless media outlets, and doing so at greater and greater speeds, we are constantly plugged into our devices—smartphone, laptop computer, tablet—at the expense of face-to-face human communication. The supposed “strong ties” that new modes of communication afford are, in actuality, weakening, as we synthesize our interpersonal communication through more and more layers of as humans, as opposed to entities that exist in a technological context.

Going back to Christine’s post, yes it is slightly off-putting that the people I communicate with on Facebook can tell when I avoid them. I find it invasive in some cases and a step too far down the road of communicative technology. But in the more grand scheme of human existence, I believe it is another proverbial “brick in the wall” that we are putting between ourselves and those that we work, study, and live with. By supposedly making the communication experience more like a face-to-face conversation, we are making ourselves more reliant on machines and technologies to communicate with each other. Essentially, what i’m arguing is that the current trajectory of social media is leading towards a gross dehumanization of person-to-person information transfer.

Don Slater writes in his essay Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline”,
“…much experience and discussion of online relationships is framed by the issue of decption and authenticity: on what basis should one believe that anyone online is who they claim to be; and can relationships that are plagued by this degree of doubt (or gullibility) be treated and serious and ‘real’ relationships?” This is the epitome of my argument– the bottom line is that we don’t experience communication the same in person as we do behind a screen, and no amount of technological advances like Facebook’s supposedly conversational “seen at” feature will change that.


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