Monday, 29 August 2011

internet addiction

I was asked in an interview I did for Triple J recently about 'internet addiction', which was really about 'social media addiction'. I've always really strongly resisted this 'addiction' metaphor, because I don't think pathologising a social practice which has many positives attached to it is healthy (pardon the pun). Sure, I think some people could learn to exercise more self control, but we could say that about lots of things: drinking too much, reading too many books, working too many hours, watching too much television, spending too much time cleaning, and so on and so forth. Some of these investments are framed as more useful than others, but I think we need to keep asking why, something Alan McKee did in a really interesting way with 'put down a book week' back in 2002.

One thing that came up in my doctoral fieldwork with young people who used sites like MySpace and Facebook in the course of everyday life, was that the negative discourses circulating about these sites were being written back into how they understood their own practice. They often reproduced these discourses themselves, embarrassed about engaging in a social practice on a daily basis. Some of them even described themselves as 'addicted' or lamented the time they spent online.

Photo by mandiberg on flickr

I understand why some people get jumpy around having these technologies enter into the everyday: "The kids will forget how to have REAL conversations and will forget how to make REAL friends." For the vast majority of young people, that is simply not true. As I am arguing in my thesis, social network sites are often used to organise, facilitate and document offline social interactions and to strengthen relationships forged offline. Then, they are used to de-brief from and archive social experiences. This is a new form of mediation that will take some time to get used to, but we must push back against those knee-jerk reactions and fears that frame these practices as necessarily negative, inconsequential or even damaging. To witness how these discourses have been written back into young people's own conceptualisation of these sites is much more troubling, I think.

I recently came across an interview by Henry Jenkins with Sherry Turkle on her new book, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. I haven't read the book yet, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this obviously critical edge plays out, but here is a nice extract on 'addiction', from that interview:
No matter how much the metaphor of addiction may seem to fit our circumstance, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to "get rid" of the Internet. We are not going to "get rid" of social networking. We will not go "cold turkey" or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction--with its one solution that we know we won't use--makes us feel hopeless, passive. 
We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don't want to pay. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything. As we consider all this, we will not find a "solution" or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

doing nothing

Inspired by a 'sociological experiment' by Nathan Palmer at Georgia Southern University in the States, Raphael, Bob and I decided to do the same experiment with our first year sociology students today.

The experiment involves doing nothing for five minutes in a public place. No checking phones, no reading, no talking, no fidgeting, just looking around. The idea was to feel the pressure of the many norms that shape our everyday lives, and to highlight one of the most common performative folkways: doing something. Even when we're waiting for a bus or a flight or a class to start, we often busy ourselves with something, even if it's just leaning on a window and doing some people-watching. So what would it feel like to stand in a public place with a bunch of other people and do nothing for five minutes?

These aren't great pictures - didn't want to use any where students were obviously identifiable - but you get the idea. See Palmer's documented experiment for a much better record along with some student reactions and thoughts. 

Next year I might plan things a little better and make a small-scale learning and teaching project out of it. Too much on at the moment though! Still, it was a fun exercise, and it certainly produced some good conversations about norms, deviance and the invisible social forces that shape us. 

The reactions of the from the the other people sharing the space (non-participants) are worth a mention. Many already in the space were initially surprised and curious when we filed out and then froze. Some expected a flash mob, with a dance routine only moments away, while others just went silent and walked through us. Surprisingly, some actually joined us. That they stopped in their tracks and stood alongside us - even if for a moment - was a great examples of how a group of people can modify the norms of a social context. Sociology!