Robot romances, virtual confidantes and digital communities: We speak with Sherry Turkle, Clay Shirky, Scott Heiferman, Leigh Alexander & Barbara Pantuso, to hear their thoughts on how we’re connecting in the age of constant connection. What are your thoughts?
Once upon a time, we lived differently. We were connected. Not to technology, but to each other. But now we have robot romances, virtual confidants, and digital communities. So how are we connecting in the age of constant connection?
Acclaimed social media writer Clay Shirky says that as technology has created new platforms for culture, that culture has become less participatory. “Culture used to be so participatory that you didn’t need a special phrase for it,” he says.
We let things come to us more passively than actively. As quality of life rose, we got TVs and cars. The downside was that we disconnected from the people right around us.
Barbara Pantuso recognized that lack of connection on a local, micro level. “It struck me as odd that my door can be four inches away from somebody else’s door and I don’t even know who lives behind that door,” she says. “Most people don’t even know their next-door neighbour.” She set out to do something about that, by creating a web platform for connecting with neighbours and building community.
Still, when we’re lonely and hungry for community, we increasingly turn to technology and the Internet. MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle, says, “we look to online life as places where we can be more to each other than we’ve allowed ourselves to be in our face-to-face lives.”
But as we’ve become more connected to technology, have we become less connected to each other?
Turkle says it isn’t necessarily that we’re less connected, but we build connections in different ways now. “[The computer] is a tool that changes your mind and heart. It changes your relationships, it changes how you see yourself. These are tools, that I put it, are the architect of our intimacy.”
Whether it’s as Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts or as part of virtual communities, we are finding each other. Eleven million people play World of Warcraft – that’s quite a community. But how does online community translate back into real-world experiences?
Leigh Alexander, who writes about the social impact of video games, sees these communities becoming an increasingly important part of the fabric of our real lives. “The biggest takeaway is the way that games are connecting us to one another,” she says. “They’re integrating with the way that we live our lives as a society and together. And this is even while most there’s portions of the developing world that don’t have computers yet. It’s going to get bigger!”
So what is the appeal of these new communities? It’s each other. The allure is the sense of community and belonging. Technology has satisfied our need for connection. But is virtual togetherness enough? Hungry for face-to-face contact, now we’re starting to see a shift towards real-world social networking.
“The revolution that’s going on is people turning to each other,” says Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, a web platform that helps people foster local, real-world communities.
“Our health benefits from it, our safety, security and just our general social mental and physical well being is much improved, the more connected we are,” says Pantuso.
As the line between the real world and the virtual continues to blur, what does it mean to be connected? To form relationships and be part of a community? How can we ensure that our online experiences foster meaningful and fulfilling real-world communities? How do you connect?