Performance-based lives

Recently, I interviewed Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other for my Pathways radio show/podcast. In it, the eminent social psychologist explores the boundaries between intimacy and solitude, and shows how social media can have a corrosive effect on both.

The book contains two intertwined stories — the effects of social networking on our lives now and the “sociable robots” of tomorrow — the “nannybots” and “eldercarebots” who will presumably be taking care of us tomorrow (until they pull the plug? :-).

In the meantime, our digital age is spawning a false intimacy at the expense of real intimacy with the help of social networking (“the commodification of friendship?”). As Ms. Turkle points out, claiming many fake friends is no substitute for having close contact with a few real ones. While the frantic activity to keep up with a maximum number of so-called friends consumes our personal time, we are left feeling strangely lonely and unfulfilled.

Now, there are indeed great uses for social networks — like helping far-flung families stay connected, or organizing around common interests — but the most common use of things like Facebook is to go onstage and recreate oneself as an online persona, some popular person … and then pretend that everyone, including people you don’t really know, should care how you liked a movie or whether you give a thumbs up to the new american idol (performance fantasies personified!).

Online profiles with stacks of staged photos are a performance piece. We replace the time and opportunity that could be had for real intimacy to maintain what is essentially an online act.

Interestingly, Ms. Turkle says performance anxiety is also the reason why most teens (and some adults) would rather text than talk — it’s easier to manage one’s performance when you don’t have to take the risk you might not say something just right. In the good old days, real friends didn’t worry about things like that!