Interview: Zygmunt Bauman: “Social media are a trap” | In English | EL PAÍS

Thanks to Stu Berry for pointing me to this. A fascinating interview, the headline of which doesn’t even begin to characterize the rich range of issues covered, most of which relate to economic, political and social concerns far beyond those of social media. It is very enjoyable and full of wise insights. Bauman’s only actual comments on social media are left right to the end and occur in a single reply:

“The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

This is a very eloquent and succinct expression of concerns others, like Sherry Turkle, Andrew Keen, Eli Pariser, Tara Brabazon and many more have voiced about social media. I think it is important to have these discussions and to observe what is lost as well as large-scale systemic effects, and this captures the essences of many of those themes very nicely. But it is (necessarily due to its brevity) a distorted caricature that leaves much unsaid. For instance, the question of identity has not changed at all. What we do now have are different ways of playing with identity in addition to what we have always had. We are not seeing a change to everything, nor even a change to individuals, but an increase in the adjacent possible.

Networks and communities

I very much like the phrase “The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you” which neatly expresses Wellman’s notion of networked individualism and is a nice characterization of the central difference between groups and networks.

This is, though, a simplified delineation of network and community, because almost all of us are and always have been members of many overlapping communities. And, of course, as Wellman has shown, we do not ever have to choose between one and the other. We constantly move between different networks and communities. Such things can operate simultaneously, sometimes literally – it is unusual not to be at an event with a group of people, especially but by no means exclusively those under 40, where at least one person is not instagramming, facebooking, or tweeting it, extending its meaning and value beyond the collocated community. There is certainly a case to be made that the event itself is thus devalued: it is without doubt affected by this extension, and it is not always in a good way. I have seen whole tables in bars where everyone sitting at them is looking at a cellphone, not at those around them, and I don’t think that is good. But I have also seen tables of people not talking at all without cellphones, and the simple fact that they are together, whether talking or not, is significant and meaningful. The fascination with virtual networks mediated through cellular devices is not the end of this. It is a passing phase that is worthy of reflection and only part of a much richer evolving tapestry. It is related to an older phenomenon of recording an event with a camera. The photographer becomes not a participant but an archivist, and changes the behaviours of other people at the event by making them conscious of themselves and of the event as an historical object. It does raise questions and concerns, but it is part of an evolutionary process that has not even begun to have played out yet.

The first part of Bauman’s response is a little facetiously treating the word ‘friend’ in social networks as having the same connotation as it has in real life. I too hate the devaluation of the term and the ugly cynicism with which Zuckerberg chose it to manipulate the emotions of Facebook members (so hard to explicitly say that someone asking to be your ‘friend’ is not a friend at all), but people with hundreds of ‘Facebook Friends’ seldom if ever believe these are actual friends – if they do, it’s a clinical condition that probably needs treatment.

Doing things together vs talking about it

Bauman’s answer does speak to a concern, not explicitly voiced but I think at the heart of his and others’ concerns, that we are replacing shared practice, purpose and communal activity with dialogue. It matters a lot that people do things together and share the same social, physical or virtual context when they do so. That shared practice or activity – whether it be doing a job, watching a movie, eating together, learning something, creating something, drinking together or whatever – is normally (but not always) lost in social media, which are often concerned with talking about such things rather than doing them together. This can blind those that view it as outsiders to the rich complexity of what is really going on within overlapping communities and networks of participants. They see individuals leading separate lives and talking about them, which would, indeed, be extremely shallowing and alienating if it were all that they did. But, except in extreme and worrisome cases, that is simply not the case. It may be a worry that many people are leading second-hand lives, talking about people talking about people, though this is not a new problem with social media, but an unfortunate side-effect of mass media (one of many). We have lived with problems like the cult of celebrity for a very long time. At least social media provide a greater chance to talk about the problem!

Filter bubbles and echo chambers

The difference between doing things together and talking about doing things together also speaks a little to the second half of the response, which is about fllter bubbles and echo chambers. When we do things together in the world, we constantly negotiate and jostle for meaning, action and purpose. Just talking about it is not the same. When we do things together, there is inevitably conflict, albeit seldom great enough to barely even notice – when we adjust our walking pace to walk together, when we feel we must show interest in things that bore us, when we choose a bottle of wine, etc. There is also delight and serendipity. Doing things together is what social life is all about: talking about it, reflecting and reminiscing, is largely a binder, a reinforcer and a connector that helps us to make shared sense and meaning out of that. When we do things together we cannot shut out or ignore those that we do them with. Popular social networking systems seldom replicate this doing-together, but many social media do: most obviously social games, but also a wide range of collaborative tools, from shared calendars to project management tools. Social media are very diverse and are usually very soft, so can play many roles. Email, as a classic example, can support almost any level of engagement, community or practice. My wife and I used to watch movies together via Skype when we were apart. To treat all this diversity as though it were Facebook is silly, and even Facebook has a very wide range of tools, purposes, uses and (yes) even communities.

There is a real and worrisome sense that filter bubbles and echo chambers are dangerous, albeit that it has ever been so. In the olden days we built those bubbles through our choice of friends, newspapers, and TV viewing and, in the mass media, editors performed the filtering for us. In the olden days, I used to just ignore sections of newspapers that addressed things that did not interest me. Now, we have a much richer potential range of things to choose from, but the bubbles are built by algorithms more often than human editors or, as in collaborative filters, through cyborg hybrids of machine and people. We do not just select what we want to see but, once we have selected it, a system performs further selection for us, often based on a coarse user model designed by a programmer (the failures of which are actually sometimes a good thing, because their mistakes show us things we might otherwise ignore or never even see). Furthermore, given the large amount of stuff out in the stuff swamp (Walt Crawford’s delightful term) and the incredibly large range of inhabitants of it, it is easy to find what seem like many people who share the craziest of views, from creationists and climate-change deniers to flat earthers and alien conspiracy believers, so it is easier to find support for niche beliefs that separate rather than connect us. There is a home for cliques and cults like there has never been before, and tribal feelings have seldom been so visible or so strong.

Luckily, though, diversity is never far from view unlike, for quite a lot of the world, in real life, where our jobs and locales seldom expose us to much that is unfamiliar and where norms are constantly and relentlessly reinforced, especially those of us that do not live centrally in cities or large towns. Most of us are not part of a single network, but are members of many overlapping communities, and many networks connected by diverse and different kinds of connection, virtual and physical. Few of us limit our engagement to a single tool, site or system and, by engaging beyond our geolocated communities, we bring enriching new perspectives to them, and return the distinctiveness of our isolated communities to those networks. Furthermore, as Terry Anderson and I have noted, a great deal of the Internet is about neither communities (groups) nor networks, but about sets. For instance, many of us view a lot of individually or group  or crowd-curated content, from Best of Reddit to our local newspaper. These don’t burst our filter bubbles but they do bring in a lot of serendipity and fuel our networks and communities with an ever-burgeoning range of diverse views. This provides a great many counterbalances to the problems of echo chambers and filter bubbles. There is a lot of noise out there, clamouring to be heard.

So, I don’t think Bauman is wrong. The concerns that he caricatures are very real. I just think that it is very much more interesting and complicated, with positive and negative effects, than a concise summary of concerns can hope to reveal. I suspect he might agree.

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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