The Social Network: Youth’s Frankenstein

Theodore Eftimiades 12/13/10

20 years ago, Star Trek introduced popular culture to the Borg, individual humans-turned-to-cyborgs operating under a collective mind, forced to function towards a single end, that being to assimilate more people to expand their collective. The Borg functioned like a disease, infecting those who they came into contact with, making them into carriers of the contagion. Unlike a disease, however, the Borg did not kill. What they did was irreversibly infuse technology and a connection to a collective mind into all humans they came into contact with; in effect, making them cyborgs, unable to function without the collective mind and their artificial parts; no longer human. We face a similar infection today, except we don’t call it “Borg,” we call it convenience; internet; the cell phone; technology. Unlike the Borg, forcing their infection upon the kicking, screaming, and squirming, we invite the Verizon Fios guy over; we go to the store and wait in line for the Iphone 4 (It has 4g, you know). As technology further integrates into society, becoming ingrained into people’s daily activities, people become like cyborgs, as technology becomes an inseparable part of who they are and what they do. The landline phone was America’s first societally integrated device which allowed for two average people, not in yelling distance of each other, to communicate. The landline phone, eventually, came to be a common household item. In the 1970’s and 80’s, studies measuring and analyzing use of the phone identified people as deriving from

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it two functions: that of a tool with which to complete tasks and that of a social device with which to attend to social matters. (Wei, 56) Now, a cell-phone has many more functions than those identified for the landline. The cellular phone is a symbol for one’s status, it double’s as a mini-laptop, a camera, and can send text messages. Internet has followed a sort of explosive increase in the functions it provides as well. People, and more specifically teens and young-adults, are more in-touch, as a demographic, with these increases in functionality than anybody else. No longer seeing phones and the internet as the other way to communicate when face-to-face communication isn’t an option, among teens and young-adults, non-physical contact is becoming physical communication’s equal in merit as a form of receiving and relaying information, important or not. The land line phone, as was aforementioned, had the motivations for its use identified as task-oriented or socializing-oriented. To be sure, the phone, now cellular, is still used to accomplish tasks and satisfy social needs, but on a more transcendent level, especially for the youth, with whom displaced-person communication has become foundational to socializing. Boundaries that used to dictate when it was and wasn’t okay to communicate on the phone or on the computer are being disregarded by young-adults; when a social barrier is disregarded, its power is taken from it. Society is changing as the youth and young-adults find it increasingly appropriate to use the phone during times that have traditionally been deemed inappropriate. In a class or lecture, 90% of kids, aged 1824, claimed that they would exchange text messages, whereas only 50% of 40-49 year olds say they would do so. (Nielsan, graph) In this same vein, a higher percentage of 1824 year olds than 25-39 or 40-49 year olds alleged that they would text at while at home,

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while driving a car, being a passenger in a car, riding a bike, waiting on a bus/train, taking a walk, waiting for a friend, shopping, and playing sports; the 18-24 age group, according to a study conducted by Nielsan, was more likely to text during every activity tested for. The older age groups (25-39 and 40-49) were not out-communicated in every measurement, though. The older age groups were more likely to talk on the phone, not text, while on a bus, while waiting for a friend, or as a passenger in a car… Compare where the two adult groups were more likely to talk to where the younger group was more likely to talk: Notice that the youth are more likely to communicate during an activity that people traditionally associate with requiring attention; for example, while driving, riding a bike, or shopping, the 18-24 age group is more likely than any other to pick up the phone or make a call. The reason young-adults are more likely to be on the phone in situations that require attention is not that they, as a generation, pay less attention to activities. The cause of this increase in communication is the increased relevance the social network plays in the lives of the younger generation, the Social Network generation. Unlike the 25-49 age groups, whose social communication is limited during the work-day, the 18-24 age range communicates constantly, usually through text. The 90% of youth who admit to texting during lectures are accessible, even during their schooling. Calling and text messaging never stops because the 18 to 24 year olds are almost always willing to be an active audience for any individual. Author Wei explains that “The notion of an active audience implies utility, intentionality, and selectivity” (Wei, 55) A selected audience is intentionally summoned because the individual expects to derive some benefit from interaction. Wei explains this to be the “Gratifications Approach” (the

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theory suggesting that action is made towards the gratification of some need.) and says that it “is most productive in identifying a wide range of reasons or motivations for choices in media use.” (Wei, 56) The Gratifications Approach explains why people choose to use technology, cell-phones, in this case, to summon an active audience to satisfy their need for some abstract psychological need. The youth are constantly communicating to an active audience. In essence, a social network, of audiences, all available upon request, form for the cell-phone user; the group becomes more informed, tailored to one’s preferences, with more use. More than providing an at-will support structure, gratifying whatever social need one has, the social network becomes the single most powerful artificial element of how one defines himself. Unlike other historically social communities, for example membership with a church, this social network is interactive, it talks back. The more one feeds this Social Network, updating specific friends on current happenings, which is very often, as was shown from the high tendency to text in all situations, the more that social network learns from experience. The social network is an abstract formulation of any person, existing independently, providing appraisal, but completely reliant on, and accessible because of, the flow of information provided by the individual. Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter, elements of newest revolution in communication, have changed the Social Network by removing “selectivity.” The audience provided by this new Social Network is still intentionally summoned by the individual for some benefit, but the individual no longer has the ability to choose who appraises him; the “selectivity” is gone. This Social Network is no longer constitutive of

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individual contacts, but is now an amorphous “other,” consisting of anyone a person has ever friended on Facebook, or anyone who’s ever “followed” an individual on Twitter. At first, with the landline phone, you could contact anyone, as long as you knew their schedule. Then, with the cell-phone, and more when texting became popular, you could contact anyone, anytime. Finally, with the Social Network, you contacted everyone, all the time. The 18-24 age range is texting the most, talking the most, updating Facebook from their Cell-Phones, Tweeting their friends, and feeding their Social Network. The relationship of giving information and receiving appraisal from the Social Network, to an increasing degree, shape who the individual becomes, as more personalized judgment allows for tinkering of personality. It’s clear now how the Social Network, when supported by the individual, offers incredibly personalized appraisal of that individual, giving this faceless “friend” a great power. Technology offers the devices with which one communicates with, and creates, the Social Network. Social technology, specifically addiction to Social technology, has been targeted as inherently bad, by popular culture. News magazines and even academic journals have attacked heavy use of technology for its negative repercussions. Displacement theory holds that, because time is in finite quantity, time spent communicating through technological means comes at the expense of time spent with face-to-face contact, which tends to be about less superficial topics; Displacement theory follows that non-physical relationships have “weak ties as relationships [which] have superficial and easily broken bonds, infrequent contact, and narrow focus.” (Subrahmanyam, 660) This viewpoint has been adopted widely, as a means of studying excessive use of technology. One would assume that, if Displacement theory is correct

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and strong relationships are being replaced with weak bonds because of constant contact with the Social Network through technology, the youth and young-adults, communicating the most through technology, would be experiencing the most in the way of negative repercussions; the media has taken to this view. Reports of excessive “Facebook-ing” or Video Game use are not hard to find. Studies, however, have concluded to the contrary: One study found that loneliness had no correlation with time spent online or emailing; in addition to that, there was no evidence to support that people who consistently chatted with people they didn’t know were any lonelier than people who chatted only with close friends and family. (Subrahmanyam, 669) According to Displacement theory, more time online should be correlated with loneliness. Moreover, those who communicate regularly with people they don’t know should be quantifiably more lonely than even those who replace face-to-face relationships with internet ones and especially those who refrain from online communication altogether; those who chat regularly with strangers should be less likely to engage in substantial talks which should intensify their feelings of loneliness. These friends should be, as Jack from Fight Club calls them, “Single [purpose] Serving Friends,” but they aren’t. (Subrahmanyam, 670) The reality is that people are simply spending substantial time on the internet, building their Social Network. Time spent on the internet or cell-phone is more likely to be social in nature, and thus negatively correlated with loneliness, than time spent playing video games, which might potentially have a link with loneliness. Addiction to the Social Network, which would easily, in most studies, be confused with addiction to the internet, can be more specifically identified as an infatuation with the appraisal of one’s self. As has been mentioned, the more the

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individual invests themselves and their experiences into their Social Network, the more personalized guidance it offers, the influence it has on them, and the more dependant they become on it for appraisal; the drive to know more about yourself, as perceived by society’s benchmark, is motivation, in itself, to feed the Social Network more information. The Generalized Other, the abstraction reflecting society’s norms which people use as the benchmark for the appropriateness of their actions, has always existed. Only recently, though, with the development of the Social Network, youth and technology’s social baby, has the Generalized Other been given a voice. No longer does the individual person have authority over what their generalized other looks and acts like, as he traditionally has. The Generalized Other speaks for itself through the Cell-phone, through Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Youtube, and the Xbox Headset. As technology advances and becomes further ingrained into society, the Generalized Other becomes more interactive, more reliant on technology for its personalization to you, its power source. For the reader, it should be noted that, in academia, addiction to technology is a new phenomena; Addiction to cell-phones, video games, and internet was a relatively obscure topic until the 21st century. A study published in 2009 showed that the peak in studies of tech-addiction, in academia, took place in 2004, when 42 articles, worldwide, were published. By 2005, the United States had published the most articles with 52, China coming in second with 23. Since 2005, the numbers of studies have dropped. Even more interestingly, 85% of these of the studies focused on Internet addiction, whereas video game and cell phone addiction constituted only 14 and 2% of studies, respectively. (Carbonell, 1)

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