There has been a lot of interest on the Internet recently over MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and her assertions about how technology, including social media, makes us “less human”: “we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face” (Turkle 2011). So, what exactly is “human”? The Wikipedia entry for the term “human” points out that “…self-awareness, rationality, and sapience, are considered to be defining features…” As humans, sharing that essential human nature of commonality of our experience with people who understand our reality is necessary to maintain mental health. We are social creatures, after all. So, is it the essential nature of social media and technology that make us more disconnected, or is it how people choose to use these technologies?
Before the existence of social media
Instead of commenting on the general argument, we’d like to talk about a specific issue. What about people who were already disconnected from face-to-face contact? There is a large population of people who were highly socially isolated before the existence of social media, due to disability or other factors. Even if they had the physical ability to go out and meet people face-to-face, and even assuming that they were accepted into general society as an equal human being (which is a huge assumption for people with disabilities), would there even be people with similar experiences in their community for them to relate to? If you are a city dweller, you may run into other people with disabilities or be able to go to specific disability-related cultural events in order to meet people who can understand your experience. What if you live in a smaller town or an isolated area, where there are very limited or nonexistent opportunities for you to meet other people?
And let’s go back to that assumption of society treating someone with a disability as an equal human being. Many people with disabilities rarely experience being treated as “human,” with all of the associated normal struggles and strengths. Particularly if you are someone who has a visible disability, the standard face-to-face interaction with others in public is too often tainted with infantilization and a general sense that you are being seen as something distinctly “other.” How do we find commonality with others in that?
“normalizing” potential of social media
What if, for some of us, the “normalizing” potential of social media allows us to be seen for who we really are underneath our meaty exterior? Wouldn’t that, in fact, make us more human rather than less? For those of us who are isolated for whatever reason, doesn’t the ability to find people we can relate to on a very personal level also make us more human? We are not saying that social media is the answer to everything. It isn’t. If you use it without an eye to balance, outreach, and human connection, you will probably feel fairly isolated. We are saying that people can choose to use any social situation, technology-mediated or not, in different ways. Sure, if you choose to isolate yourself from those around you, you are going to be isolated. But you can also choose to open up entirely new worlds. You can use social media to get involved in groups and nonprofits. You can make friends online that carry over into face-to-face relationships (which many of us have done for many years). You can find people with things in common with you who might be impossible to find where you are.
Every week at GimpGirl Community we come together online via synchronous methods (like Second Life and IRC) and asynchronous platforms (like LiveJournal and Facebook) to share commonality with others. We share strategies for dealing with frustrating medical systems, and tips for how to better utilize adaptive equipment. We talk about better ways to have sex, or find locals we might share commonality with. We vent frustrations that no one without similar experiences would understand. We help other members going through abuse, or trying to find ways to get out of bad situations. Some who join us probably leave the same as when they entered our little corner of the ‘net, but most leave saying they feel surprisingly more human than when they came.
Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.