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Sept. 21, 2016
“I’m So Totally, digitally, Close to You: The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” by a former Knight Fellow at MIT, Clive Thompson, follows the path of how technology has made us closer than ever and farthest apart at the same time. Thompson captures the reader’s attention by describing how Mark Zuckerberg changed the way Facebook worked forever. He then describes how adults who were at first skeptical about using social media got into using it on a regular basis, how social media can help you connect with people more, what the Dunbar number is and how it has changed, and how social media is ruining our lives. Thompson’s article is effective because he combines interviews from multiple people about the effect of social media on their lives.
Thompson starts his article by describing how Mark Zuckerberg changed the format of Facebook. Zuckerberg added the News Feed feature which enabled users to see the changes to their friend’s pages without having to constantly check on their pages to see if anything had changed. News Feed works by acting as the front page of a newspaper; it shows you all of the important information that people in your friends list posted since the last time you were on Facebook (Thompson 583-584). Thompson describes the first reactions of students who saw News Feed for the first time, “When students woke up that September morning and saw News Feed, the first reaction, generally was one of panic” (584). Instead of your posts being semi-private, now everything you posted on your page, even if it’s embarrassing, is now shown to all of your friends within News Feed (584). Thompson explains how people quickly changed their minds about News Feed because they learned things about their friends that thy normally wouldn’t have. Thompson also explains how Facebook made way for all of the other social media sites we see today; People thought they wouldn’t like constant updates of what other people were doing, and yet they loved it and found it addicting (585). Social scientists have named this phenomena “ambient awareness”. Thompson explains what exactly ambient awareness is by describing, “They say it is very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does” (585). This ambient awareness eventually caught on to not only young students, but to older adults too.
Thompson starts the next section of his article by describing how older adults found it absurd that people would describe their minute-to-minute activities to the world. Thompson interviews people who were at first skeptical, and then reports their responses, “Ben Haley, a thirty-nine-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year, his first reaction was that it seemed silly” (585). After a few friends urged Haley to join Twitter, he thought each tweet he read was basically meaningless. Thompson later reports how Haley eventually changed his mind about the useless information about his friends, “It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s minds, I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them” (qtd. in Thompson 586). This can lead to more real-life socializing, because you know more about your friends and have more things to talk about. Thompson then describes how just looking at a person’s social media feed isn’t interesting, but if you continue to follow it for a while, it feels like you know the story of their life (587). Thompson interviews Shannon Seery, a blogger on Twitter, and asks how she finds the time to follow so many people online. She answers by saying that social media is not personal, so you don’t have to stop and read each post, you can just skim through them and read whichever ones seem interesting to you (587). Reading all of these posts can bring you closer to people.
Social Media can bring you closer to complete strangers, in a way that you never could. Thompson reports Seery’s response to how social media has changed her life, “Things like Twitter have actually given me a much bigger social circle. I know more about more people than ever before” (qtd. in Thompson 588). Despite the fact that you have never physically met most of the people you follow on social media, you still feel close to them because you now know more about their life than you ever would. Thompson also describes his own experience of becoming closer to Seery, after following her on twitter and learning more about her life. Thompson knew more about Seery’s life after following her blog for a year, than he did about his two sisters’ lives that he occasionally talked to (588). Laura Fitton, who is a social media consultant and has a large following on Twitter, says that she uses her large audience as a way to answer questions and get advice (589). Her followers get to know her so well, that they are able to give her sound advice about things that are going on in her life. Connecting with many people online leads to question of whether or not these people are actually your friends or not, this is where the Dunbar number comes into play.
The Dunbar number is a useful tool to measure how many deep social connections humans can have at one given time. Thompson explains what exactly the Dunbar number is when he describes how Robin Dunbar argued that humans have a limit to how many people he or she can know personally. Dunbar figured that the human limit of social connections would be around 150 people, and he was right, but now the number might be changing thanks to social media (588). Thompson reports about his findings from interviews with people who excessively use social media, “Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger” (588). While people’s deep connections with people had not grown, the number of “weak ties” they had with people grew greatly. The people that you would meet once or twice and forget about are now showing up on your News Feed and reminding you that they still exist. In order to calculate your technological Dunbar number, you add all of the people who you are friends with or follow (minus any people who are duplicates on multiple sites). It’s interesting how many of those so called “friends” you actually consider true friends. This new growth in weak ties between people can actually turn into a bad thing.
While building strong connections between people, social media is also ruining our lives. Social scientists are worried that constantly being up to date on what other people are doing and feeling will wear our emotional energy thin, since there are so many people to keep track of. Following celebrities on social media is also bad for our emotional state, because you are not making any connections with that person because they are unaware that you even exist (Thompson 589). Danah Boyd studied social media for ten years, and reports her findings to Thompson, “The information we subscribe to on a feed is not the same as in a deep social relationship. They can observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you” (qtd. in Thompson 590). Thompson reports his interview with Caterina Fake, a Founder of Flickr, about how following people on social media makes people too lazy to see their friends in person. Caterina describes her own experience, “At one point I realized I had a friend whose child I had seen, via photos on Flickr, grow from birth to a one-year-old. I thought, I really should go meet her in person. ‘But it felt weird’…’, so I didn’t feel the urgency’” (590). Another frustration of social media is that you can never back away from your online life, or else other people will post things about you and dictate your life. Society has gone back to that old town feeling where everybody knows everything about everyone else, and you can’t lie because everyone already knows the truth (591). All in all, social media has its advantages and consequences.
By reporting on his interviews with multiple people, Thompson’s article is an effective way to show how social media has shaped our lives, whether you believe for better or worse. Mark Zuckerberg first revolutionized social media by adding News Feed to Facebook. At first, nobody liked the change, but eventually everyone got used to it and grew to like it. Adults didn’t understand why people would post about every minor thing that happened in their life, but once they tried it, they found a way social media can enhance their lives. With so many people online, you can easily catch up with an old friend that you haven’t seen in years, or you can make friends with complete strangers who have similar interests as you. The number of connections a person can have, the Dunbar number, has grown extensively since people have started using social media. Of course social media also has to have its downfalls, including your life not being private anymore, people become too lazy to see their friends in real life, and you are rarely making deep connections with people that you meet online. At some point in our life, we should sit down and think about how social media has impacted our lives, and if it had a good or bad impact.
By reporting on his interviews with multiple people, Thompson’s article is an effective way to s