Interacting on the Interweb

The latest furore surrounding the ‘potentially damaging’ nature of things like Facebook and Twitter is in swing, with the Daily Mail (safe to click! Minus images) interpreting a scientist’s views as social networking turning your kids’ brains to mush. Note that Martin does of course disagree – as do I.

Sciencepunk has taken the time to speak to Susan Greenfield herself to try to get a clearer idea of exactly what her concerns and suggested solutions might be, under all the media distortion and so on. He’s written up the interview for New Scientist. I take up her invitation to join the debate.

Unfortunately, listening to her speak I still find myself vehemently disagreeing with most of what she says for various reasons, including the fact that she clearly has very little or no personal experience of what she talks about, is missing some key issues and appears to wilfully ignore positive outcomes in favour of potentially negative ones.

That’s not very scientific!

So, let’s get ranty.

Context is everything

First I recall a comedy sketch (apologies for forgetting whose, do say if you know!) based on the occasions when Facebook is suddenly down/unavailable, in which the bereft individual wanders the streets shoving photographs in people’s faces and shouting “DO YOU LIKE THIS??”.

I laughed, because it’s absurd, we don’t do that… but hang on! We kind of do. I quite often show people pictures I’ve taken, be it on my camera, my phone, downloaded to my computer or even (omg old!) albums with pictures on actual photo paper!

Important to remember is that we behave differently in some situations compared to others; it’s a ridiculous fear that online behaviour is going to replace offline behaviour. They’re different things that don’t translate. Just as you don’t put your feet up on the table in a meeting vs. in the lounge, or take your shirt off and sit on your friend’s shoulders at a posh indoor concert at a swanky theatre.

We like to share our experiences with our friends, and sometimes if we’re a bit more serious about photography, get people’s input on our creative endeavours. That’s not a fault, it’s perfectly normal behaviour and taking feedback/constructive criticism/praise onboard is a good way to improve ourselves if that’s the goal.

Small-talk, seeking approval and helpful suggestions, presenting an image of ourselves – this is what we do in life, not just online. Does she also have a problem with in-person small-talk? Should we only ever be having super-meaningful conversations?

Sorry, but after our lab meeting we like to go and have lunch, talk about the weather, take the piss out of each other and show holiday photos, for example. We don’t spend all day talking about work or the latest world crisis; that would be draining and rather unhealthy, I’m sure most would agree.

In the same way, not all of my tweets or facebook status updates are serious. I share articles, I have a moan about things, we’ll have some discussions. But other times I’ll be swearing about a minor injury, taking a photo of the mouthwatering foods/lovely scenery I see before me or friends/pets making tits of themselves. Because life is a mixture of these things and if it weren’t, it’d be bloody boring.

Greenfield seems to want to make a connection between things like increasing autism rate and internet use. I’m pretty sure it’s well-accepted that the ‘increase’ in rates of conditions like this is due to better diagnosis and a clearer definition of what the condition actually is – these are recent things. There’s no good evidence (that I know of) to suggest the perceived increase is due to vaccines or playing on computers or anything else (edit: Jon Brock says it is indeed demonstrably false); it’s likely always been there, we’re just picking up on it better now. Which is good, because it means more people get the help and support that they need.

Also there’s been a ‘shocking rise in things like happy-slapping’?? Well of course there has, because again this term applies to a phenomenon that’s only been able to exist since mobile phones got video cameras. That does not mean that people didn’t go around beating other people up for fun and to show off to their friends before this era. Sadly I know this from personal experience as I’m sure many do, but good for her if she’s never had to deal with such things.

I do not believe for a second that these kind of people only exist because the internets have created them, by eroding their empathy circuits. There have always been nasty ****s and there always will be, sadly. Don’t blame the internet, or video games, or whatever the latest demon-you-don’t-get is.

When pressed for evidence, instead of offering some, she instead asks if we want to wait and see what kind of evidence emerges? *Ominous sound effect* – That is not an answer, it’s just silly scaremongering. She’s even placing weight in parental concerns, on anecdotes.

Parents will always be concerned about what their kids are up to, it’s the generation gap – every generation is both very different from (in terms of technology in particular) and the same as (regarding concerns, ‘we never did such things!’ ‘you whipper-snappers without any respect’! etc.) the previous ones. Again this is nothing new. To me it just sounds like she’s scared of change and using popular fears as an excuse to criticise.

It’s not so much the technologies in and of themselves that I’m criticising but how they’re used

Nail on the head. If your kid is spending 6 hours straight in front of the TV, damn well turn it off. Go for a walk. You can’t blame Nintendo for the people who spend their lives with the console running, you can’t blame Google for someone staying up until 5am looking at random websites. Discipline your kids and yourself and these things are like any other activity – perfectly healthy in reasonable amounts. Also if my child wanted to hug people for 6 hours, I’d be concerned at the level of clinginess they’d somehow developed.

Hi Ho Silver Lining

What gets me in a real rage about these attacks on social media, the internets and so forth, is that people (especially people who don’t even use it themselves, infuriatingly) are so very quick to not even bother considering the positive outcomes.

I’ve made similar points in the past but I’ll do so again ‘cos I can.

Some people aren’t comfortable in social situations. If you’re so concerned about the people on the austism spectrum, take a bit of time to learn what it is they struggle with, and what helps them. Even for those of us without personal experience of such things, sometimes we all have those days when we’d just rather not have to put on a smiley face and be around people.

For some, that’s more the default setting. That’s not because interaction with other people is completely off-putting, but sometimes the trappings that come with getting together ‘irl’ are just too much. If people are put off by the poking, liking and kind of sharing that happens on FB/Twitter then take a step back and look at what we do offline.

How should I dress? What should I say? What is the tone of my voice conveying? Is this rude? Will I upset them if I say that? What should I do in this situation? Do I have to smile now? Is eye contact creepy? No, if I look away, that’s impolite. Wait, I’m staring. Oh she thinks I’m a complete weirdo. I need to buy the next round? What are they laughing at?

Et cetera. You might not have ever thought these things, but many do, and social interaction can be a stressful experience – think of a time you just wanted to go home to the TV/a book/bed.

But most of us want to talk with people and share bits of our lives. If the above is a regular issue then the internet is an absolute godsend. Again I’m not going to waffle on about my personal reasons for thinking this but would encourage those who are scared of online things ‘replacing real life interaction’ to just stop and reconsider. Maybe, just maybe, the internet is actually a very fulfilling and stimulating environment that does give people a sense of identity and belonging in plenty of cases.

Of course, writing this on a blog isn’t the best way of conveying such a message, I know. So don’t whine at me about that!!

The wealth of information online, both factual things to learn and giving better access to ‘real life’ events and so on, it’s a huge resource that helps people immensely. Liaise with friends, make new ones, find a place to stay at short notice… the list is extensive.

People seem so hell-bent on discovering how damaging the interwebnets are for our brains, they don’t seem to be bothered about the good it’s doing. This happens with every technological leap, like television as she mentions herself; will it replace books?! No, of course not.

If you think Twitter is all people saying what they had for breakfast, I don’t want to talk to you about it. Either give it a try or listen to the people who explain it really isn’t, at least try to get a better idea, or shut up. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, as they say.

If you only update your facebook page to broadcast your personal life then don’t complain it’s all about gossip and invasion of privacy. These experiences are user-driven, they are what we make them, and if I see more of this pointless demonising, I will shout louder.

My friends, whom I cannot refer to as ‘online’ or ‘offline’ because they are largely both (except when there are huge oceans in the way), have kept me afloat when I’ve been too upset to talk on the phone, too much of a mess to leave the house or present myself to people face-to-face.

Thank FSM for the internet because without it… well, imagine! Where would I get to see parrots dancing to horrible pop songs hilariously or cats in all manner of sickeningly cute predicaments. Or indeed hear first-hand accounts from countries descending into civil war, or kids getting beaten by police at legal protests.

Life is not simple, nor is our virtual world. Embrace it/keep your distance, whatever. But don’t be so quick to demonise what you have not even tried to understand or see good within.

That’s the remit of rags like the one that published the silly, distorted story in the first place.

I’m not going to go into the video games criticism much; saying that actions don’t have consequences and this could affect how people think is just another I’ve-never-played-them sourced view, in my opinion, and I’ve had rants about all that before as well.

Edit: more people are irritated!

Dorothy Bishop has written an open letter to Greenfield regarding her comments. Edit (2): having received much support and thanks for her letter, one academic chooses to challenge her position. If you want to see how scientists fight, take a look.

Martin has a more serious piece addressing Greenfield’s somewhat shaky claim that she has never linked autism to internet use, following more high-profile individuals losing their rag with her, including Carl Zimmer – documenting the rise of the most amusing #greenfieldism hashtag.

It’s even made it to the Wall Street Journal!

Breaking!! Susan Greenfield causes autism!

16/8/11: More recently, Andrew Maynard (my fellow I’m a Scientist! 2010 contestant) has published an excellent analysis of Greenfield’s latest outing, which came in the form of a video statement published on the Guardian website.

6 Responses to “Interacting on the Interweb”

  1. Ian Rennie Says:

    If it weren’t for chatting about silly crap online, I wouldn’t have met my wife. So, yeah, chalk me up as rather fond of the Internet and social networking.

  2. Simon Clare Says:

    Wonderful rant, cheers!

  3. Tom Williamson Says:

    Really enjoyed that! :)

    It does annoy me when you get luddites who have a go at modern technology, all too quick to blame the technology itself rather than the people who use it.
    Back when I was doing my PhD, I felt really privileged to be able to use PubMed etc to do my literature searches. In the old days (and I had to do a little bit of this when I was an undergrad back in 2004) you had to physically go to a library, look up the article you wanted, find it on the shelves, take a photocopy, then look up more article in the sames way. The internet has saved so much time for academics and that’s a good thing!

  4. Georgia Cameron-Clarke Says:

    Well said, Marianne!

  5. ResCogitans Says:

    even if the internet has a negative influence on people, what can anyone do about it? ban it? make a law restricting time online or age of someone using it? lol i don’t think so, in which case, to paraphrase: “what of we cannot change, we must pass over in silence”

  6. Keith Says:

    Obviously I’m extremely late to the party here, but that’s a really good post.

    I for one find myself using the internet as a place to have a ‘good old moan’, in a way that I would never do with, say, a bunch of friends in the pub. And sometimes the impersonality of online communications make it easier to ask for / offer advice on topics that are just a bit too sensitive to share in most social situations.

    There’s obviously a whole lot more to it than that, but I thought you made a very good point about helping people find outlets that are less stressful / confrontational than traditional offline interactions.


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