“Facebook in the Flesh”

The Web has often and, I think, justifiably been touted as a democratizing and empowering communications medium. But as with any communications phenomenon of this magnitude, there are bound to be some negative effects. I am not talking here about the threats to children or the ubiquity of online pornography. In more basic social and expressive terms, the manner in which people associate and communicate “online” may be producing certain deleterious effects with regard to such activities “offline.” Although there are likely others, I want to discuss two such potential negative effects.

The first possible negative effect relates to basic interpersonal skills and social networking. As some educators (the author included) are doubtless aware, students have a tendency to resort to email rather than make appointments for face-to-face meetings with instructors. Disembodied or “virtual” communication can of course be quite beneficial in terms of things like convenience and efficiency. But for students, emailing, texting, and participating in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are not primarily related to convenience and efficiency; they are now the principal means of connecting to and communicating with others. What effect are these modes of online communication having on real space encounters and interactions? Consider a recent orientation seminar offered at New York University, entitled “Facebook in the Flesh.” As reported in the September 17 edition of The New Yorker, the seminar was apparently designed to teach students how to socialize and build social networks in person — social processes that a seminar brochure recognized could be very “intimidating” to students. At one point, participants were paired off and given instructions on how to do such elementary things as ask questions and discover commonalities and connections. Thus, one possible negative effect from online modes of expression is the difficulty, and in some cases even inability, to effectively interact with others located in the same physical space. This negative effect may have serious social and economic, as well as expressive, ramifications. (According to a recent survey, time spent at work has not decreased despite the availability of mobile technologies.)


Another possible negative effect relates specifically to the manner in which audiences interact with speakers – public officials, commencement speakers, celebrities, comics, etc. – in public and quasi-public settings. The pratice of heckling appears to be ascendant. A documentary entitled “Heckler” was shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. As reported in the New York Times:

The film . . . argues that hecklers have grown not only more conspicuous in recent years, but more scathing, as more people feel emboldened to partake in public criticism, perhaps in part because the culture of blogs and online user reviews has created a climate where everyone is a critic — and a harsh one. It’s not enough to give performers a simple thumbs down. They must be personally lambasted, humiliated, even virtually willed out of existence.

Heckling, an expressive form that challenges and generally irritates the speaker, may be giving way to the “takedown” — an expressive form that seeks not only to silence and discredit the speaker but in many cases to assert the primacy of the heckler’s own message (a version of the “heckler’s veto”). Psychologists refer to the disabling of personal filters (manners) as the “disinhibition effect.” Online disinhibition has been facilitated to a large extent by Web anonymity. But disinhibition is present in many non-anonymous online encounters as well. As the Times article notes, today’s heckler, whether online or offline, often wants credit for the takedown. Although some psychologists have suggested a connection between online expressive behaviors and offline disinhibition, one cannot of course establish a direct causal relationship. Nevertheless, there is at least a plausible argument that behaviors like the disinhibited online takedown are seeping into our offline expressive culture. Is this necessarily a negative effect? After all, heckling is a longstanding and even in some sense venerable First Amendment tradition. In today’s often minutely stage-managed public domain, some interruption and disruption may be a salutary thing. But there are important differences between heckling a speaker and taking her down. Takedowns undermine basic First Amendment values like tolerance for diverse viewpoints and respect for a speaker’s ability to deliver her message. In an offline expressive culture in which there may be no “audience” of listeners but only a subjectively entitled, increasingly narcissistic, and vociferous group of speakers, such basic First Amendment values will be difficult to preserve.

Is there a connection between these two negative effects? Possible personal networking difficulties and behaviors like the takedown suggest a culture that may ultimately be less socially adept, at least in the traditional sense. As or more importantly, we may be witnessing the gradual decline of critical aspects of our offline expressive culture — the ability to connect with others in real time and space and to listen respectfully, in silence, to what others have to say.

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5 Responses

  1. Let’s try a little experiment . . .

    Thus, one possible negative effect from OFFLINE modes of expression is the difficulty, and in some cases even inability, to effectively interact with others who ARE NOT located in the same physical space. This negative effect may have serious social and economic, as well as expressive, ramifications.

    Yep. It works. Let’s try another . . .

    As or more importantly, we may be witnessing the gradual decline of critical aspects of our ONLINE expressive culture — the ability to connect with others ASYNCHRONOUSLY and IN REMOTE PLACES and to listen respectfully, in silence, to what others have to say.

    There’s a serious point lurking in here. When it comes to offline networking, there’s simply a generational skew at work. People who are socialized to one set of forms of interaction will be in positions of seniority and power with respect to people who are socialized to another. During the transition, the people who are using the newer forms will suffer for it, since they don’t fit with what their predecessors are expecting. Towards the end of the transition, that will flip, and the people who can’t interact quickly and informally using online social technologies will wonder why they’re missing out on the connections and social capital. These two forms of incomprehension will probably coexist for some time. Training young people to network in person is a fairly healthy way of bridging that gap (but do ask your host Frank about the egalitarian societal implications of the inculcation of elite values and elite habits).

    As for the takedowns, I just don’t know. Online, it’s often a lot easier to have an opinion without the risk of being intimidated out of expressing it. A regular theme in studies of online communities is how liberating people felt it to be to be able to express themselves in more supportive online setting. Mobs are old, very old, but they can’t come for you if they don’t know where you live. Are you sure that this tradition of listening respectfully and in silence is older than the Internet?

  2. Sue Law says:

    The issue with online interaction is surely one of dehumanising society on the one hand and empowering everyone on the other.

    For example, one can now make a legal claim online and never have to physically attend court but provide everything in writing and gain a settlement from the company involved outside of any human interaction. This is leading to a litigation culture that the United States is exporting to countries like the UK.

    Many people have countless friends online but noone to actually talk to over a beer in their own neighborhood. I know such people. For these people at least they have a form of expression and sites such as Digg.com use a universal democratic way of getting great ideas to the masses from your own bedroom or office by a simple voting system.

    I conclude that any interaction is better then none at all and for many who live isolated from likeminded people the internet networking route is a gateway to a better life.

    The worst aspect is that criminals are using the data so abundant to steal from us all. Facebook is apparently going to let Google index details from personal information in amonth or two. People have been warned about opting out soon to avoid personal information been indexed for the world to see.

    You can see how the BIG Brother culture could evolve very very quickly.

    I personally still prefer a beer and normal interaction at least once a fortnight!

  3. Tim Zick says:

    It may be, as James Grimmelmann suggests, that we are heading toward a future in which virtual connection and communication are the primary modes of human interaction. At some point the “flip” may occur, and those less adept at new forms of communication and networking will suffer — economically and otherwise. It is imperative that we all adapt to new technologies. As I say, these new media are empowering. But I also believe that as human beings, we will not be able to jettison face-to-face social contacts; nor will most people want to do so (see “Sue Law”‘s comment above). Workers will likely continue to go to work, bloggers will meet occasionally in real space/time conventions, candidates will press the flesh, students will sit in classrooms, and activists will gather together (as a result in many cases of online networking). Assuming such a future society, the potential decline of basic interpersonal social skills seems quite worrisome. I don’t mean to denigrate the NYU seminar; rather, I find its subject matter remarkable — and somewhat disturbing for what it portends.

  4. I realize that your point is not limited to the New Yorker piece you cite, but please do note two facts about the NYU orientation seminar reported there that make it seem much less a portent of doom:

    1. Only 35 people showed up. NYU’s entering class usualyl has more than 4000 students. (Apparently they all went to the “Dude, Where’s My Class” session instead). Presumably most incoming college students don’t feel they need remedial training in basic social interaction, and they are probably right.

    2. The guy running the seminar had never been on Facebook and didn’t even know what a “poke” was? How can you bridge a supposed gap when you don’t even understand it?

    Meaning, I’d take the whole event described there with a pinch of salt. Come to think of it, just like lots of little cute vignettes in the New Yorker.

  5. Tim Zick says:

    Of course, the New Yorker vignette should be read with the suggested pinch of salt. I’m not sure whether online communications are actually creating the negative effects I’ve identified. It may be too early to tell. It may not turn out to be so. Perhaps in this case university administrators were simply trying to be hip, and failed. Or perhaps this is a real problem in the making — one students themselves may not even be cognizant of (at least a few of those who attended apparently seemed to find personal interactions “harder than Facebook” and “awkward”).