I suppose we’re overdue for another pronouncement from an “expert” about how the Internet will kill us all.

The way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness, according to a leading American sociologist.

“A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age.

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking…

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

What follows is a rehash of the same old condemnation of the internet I’ve heard from learned academics for going on thirty years. What I find interesting about most of these stories is that they rarely come from an academic who has more than a passing acquaintance with the technology that alarms them so.

I’ll give you one example that tells me Turkle knows almost nothing about how we real humans use Twitter: the Tweetup.

For those of you who don’t have Twitter, a Tweetup is when a bunch of folks who know each other, either through Twitter or “the real world”, use the service to meet face-to-face. They happen every day, for all sorts of reasons (or no better reason than just to get a bunch of folks together for dinner), can be pre-planned or spontaneous, involve anywhere from a few to hundreds of people, and even novice tweeters learn about them pretty quickly.

The best thing about Tweetups is that they are the opposite of “isolating us from real human interactions”. Real people meet other real people and, contrary to Turkle’s thesis, they interact. And guess what? The same things happen through Facebook as well. In fact, my experience with social media (which includes almost seven years as a blogger, over two years on Twitter, as well as LinkedIn, Facebook, Hashable, and plenty others) is that social media platforms make “real human interactions” far more likely than the old days of AOL chatrooms, IRC, and static web pages. That’s just not my experience, either. Glenn Reynolds has seen the same things (though, I note, he’s far less engaged on Twitter. What’s up, Professor?)

But what do I know? I’m just a guy who has been active in social media for a few years, not a sociologist and professor from MIT. Clearly Professor Turkle’s experience is different as you can clearly see from her complete lack of engagement on her Twitter feed. No wonder she thinks so little of social media. She uses Twitter as a platform to advertise herself and crank our fortune cookie-like Tweets as if she were some ancient temple oracle. She doesn’t reply to others, doesn’t involve herself in conversations with her over 1000 followers, and follows only 41 people. Heck, she doesn’t even share links to the quotes she provides. Unlike the hundreds of millions of people who use Twitter as a platform for “real human interaction”, she walls herself off in true ivory tower fashion.

Herein lies my problem with academics. I have no doubt that Professor Turkle is a fine sociologist. I would, no doubt, consult her if I had a question about sociology. I wonder, though, what social media experts she consulted before she wrote her book? Did she actually spent time talking to Twitter of Facebook users? Did she seek out experienced social media folks like Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Scott Stratten, or Darren Rowse before she wrote her book? How about some of the people who have used social media to change the face of politics like David All, Tabitha Hale, Melissa Clouthier, Patrick Ruffini, Jon Henke, or the people who still run Organizing for America? It appears not. Why do you think that is? It’s not as if the folks I’ve named are impossible to reach. Most of them have multiple ways for people to contact them — Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, telephone — and all of them are in the business of talking to other people. So why did the good professor apparently not get their countervailing opinions*?

I suspect it’s because she has developed the same habit as far too many modern academics — develop the theory, find what you need to prove it, and make no real effort to get outside your own cloistered community to see what the people you’re treating like wild animals on a safari tour are actually doing lest you find evidence that cuts your thesis to pieces.

*I’ll allow the possibility that she did contact some folks with social media experience and simply ignored them, which is as good as not asking them in the first place)

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3 Responses to “Breaking: Academic Writes a Book on Social Media that Doesn’t Reflect the Real World”

  1. Tweets that mention Breaking: Academic Writes a Book on Social Media that Doesn’t Reflect the Real World -- Topsy.com says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jimmie, Rob. Rob said: RT @jimmiebjr: New Post: Breaking: Academic Writes a Book on Social Media that Doesn't Reflect the Real World http://bit.ly/h1Ij3F [...]

  2. Mr. Science Guy says:

    Fortunately, science can be advanced even by the 'pick a hypothesis and ignore opposing evidence' method. When this theory is published, other sociologists will cut it to ribbons, either destroying it completely, or paring it down to some essential nugget that can't be disproved, and that future scientists can build on. It's not good for the scientist's ego, nor the most effective way to make progress, but it's not completely useless. In my opinion, the trouble is in communication-ideas like this are released to the public with no indication of what level of confidence they merit, and that means the reader can't tell where it falls in the spectrum between a law, and a flight of fancy.

    • Jimmie says:

      As you can tell, I'm closer to the "flight of fancy" way of thinking, at least on this. The professor did write a whole book on the subject, so I assume she has more than "Internet BAD!" as an argument, but I'm not really sure what else she can bring to the table aside from that, given the quotes she's given.

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