How Social Media Are Changing Community and Identity
Who do we think we are? How do we define ourselves in the midst of a rapidly changing society? What part do social media now play in defining our identity and is their role a positive one?
Yesterday the BBC released the findings of an IPSOS Mori poll it had commissioned looking at how people in the UK define their identity.
The poll asked respondents to imagine that they were introducing themselves to someone they'd not met before. It then asked them to describe who they were, without referencing their family and friends or their work.
The responses were categorised under such headings as "Social Class", " Interests and Leisure Activities", "Ethnicity", "Religion", "Values and Outlook" and "Personal Views and Opinions".
Across the country, the highest percentage of responses came in under the latter two headings. Only a fifth or a quarter of people in most regions defined themselves in terms of their nationality. With the exception of London, less than 10 percent of people in most regions defined themselves on the basis of ethnicity.
To coincide with the release of the poll, I was invited to take part in a BBC radio discussion on how and why our sense of community is changing.
It was put to me that we may now be defining ourselves via our immediate local surroundings and then in global terms, under the influence of digital media, without referencing what comes in between - our national heritage.
Yet the latter would seem to be of vital concern at a time when Britain faces important questions relating to its identity and its place in the world.
The Scottish referendum on independence will take place in September and the government has promised a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU sometime in 2017.
On one level, debates surrounding these issues suggest that we are passionate about national identity, at least on a collective level - even if those debates are slow to gather pace. Yet the IPSOS Mori study suggests that on an individual level we downplay the role of nationality in shaping who we are.
I see no obvious reason to believe that the result would be vastly different in other parts of the developed world. Though it may at first seem confusing, it is the result we should perhaps expect in an increasingly globalised and urbanised world.
For most of human history, the vast majority of people lived in small communities where they spent most of their lives. Urban enclaves were tiny by today's megacity standards.
People's basic values and outlook were to a large degree commodities shared across the local community.
In fact a person's basic worldview and values might be predicted on the basis of where he or she lived, especially if that was in a tiny hamlet or village.
Today's globalisation, however, has brought with it increased mobility and the breaking down of traditional barriers to travel and migration.
Where we've come from and what we think are not so closely aligned. Globalisation has brought a world of ideas to our doorsteps - to such a degree that we sometimes face an options overload when it comes to worldviews, ethics and values.
Added to greater mobility, we now face the social and psychological challenges posed by urbanisation. As more of us crowd into fast-growing cities, we find ourselves surrounded by people of many different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
In the wake of greater global mobility and urban expansion, tribalism has increased, in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, tribalism expresses itself in minority support for extreme political groups, on either end of the political spectrum.
This is usually seen as a totally negative development, but it might be argued that extremes play a useful role in helping us define the middle ground. (That is, of course, unless they achieve a position of real power.)
On the more clearly more positive side, tribalism is expressed in the way people seek others who think like them and share similar life experiences, often outside of their immediate physical environment.
Social media and other forms of digital communication have become major portals through which we establish new tribes. This is especially true for the Millennial generation, the world's first digital natives.
This cohort, aged between 15 and 32, has grown up with digital communications technologies, interacting with them in truly symbiotic ways. The technology has helped shaped how they think and act, and their values and habits have shaped the development of the tools they use.
In their excellent book The App Generation, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis describe how, for many Millennials, digital apps have altered the perception of reality.
Their lives as so entwined with apps, say the authors, that they've reached the point of seeing life as one overriding, cradle-to-grave app, a series of tasks to be fulfilled using an "overall packaged sense of self".
The online experience is central in shaping their identity and experience of others.
The authors propose that a reliance on social media may at times stunt the growth of young adults, by making it too easy to involve their parents in the smallest decisions of everyday life.
The average American college student living away from home now contacts mum or dad 13.5 times per week. This level of contact, facilitated by social media, would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
It's not just Millennials who rely heavily on digital tools in their social interaction. In recent times, across a number of regions of the world, the fastest uptake in Facebook membership has been among the over-50s.
This has been cited as a reason for the rapid slowdown in new Facebook use among teenagers. No self-respecting teen, it seems, wants to dole out his or her most intimate thoughts knowing that granny might be watching.
(Judging from some of the things teens share online, knowing granny's there might offer a useful safety valve.)
Social media are useful in that they allow us to build a semblance of community at arms length. Yet some studies suggest that making social media a primary tribe-building mechanism leads us to expect more from technology and less from each other.
We carry out more and more of our conversations via machines and fewer via face-to-face connections. In the process, we may be allowing some of our relationship-building "muscles" to atrophy.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, the noted British neuroscientist, has studied how screen-based communication may be changing our brains. She is openly sceptical about the value of social networking platforms, particularly in terms of how they impact on our capacity for empathy and on the way in which we establish personal identity.
I was an early adopter of tools such as Skype - and something of an evangelist for it in its early days. I still think of it as one of the most elegant and useful of all digital tools.
Skype and its younger competitors usefully bridge the miles separating us from loved ones. Yet they do not allow anywhere near the same level of intimacy or as eyeball-to-eyeball interactions.
In conversation with a screen we do not use the full range of our natural biometric skills, including our normally unconscious ability to read minute facial expressions. The complexity involved in human conversation is what makes it both unique and rewarding.
We're now not far away from the advent of fully haptic virtual reality screens and personalised holographic projection units. Yet I think we'll still feel that cyber-calling is in some way inferior to a physical interaction.
As it is, some of us find that the online experience actually increases feelings of isolation. Though well connected in the cyber world, some people feel alone in the midst of the real-time urban crowd. Their sense of isolation is exacerbated by the fact that the very act of engaging online reminds them of how many people they could know, but don't.
Overall, there is evidence to suggest that while social media may widen our range of potential relationships, they're not quite so helpful in terms of deepening relationships once we're in them. They are useful for maintaining already robust connections, or for initiating the early stages of relationships, but not so good for building really deeply rooted relationships from the ground up.
If we rely too heavily on social media to provide a sense of identity and community, our range of relationships is likely to become broad but shallow.
Studies in industry have shown that digital communications tend to be more effective and beneficial when they're an adjunct to - not a replacement for - something more personal.
For example, one study looked at thousands of emails sent between co-workers in a large British firm. It revealed that a high percentage of those emails were sent to people working on the same floor, or even within the same office space.
This and similar research suggests that sharing ideas, projects and even values is an inherently social thing - and, to some degree, we need physical proximity to pull it off.
The way we build a sense of community may be changing, as the BBC IPSOS Mori poll suggests. In an age of arms-length community-building we may find that declaring our views and outlook become ever more important in describing ourselves to others.
I strongly suspect that a growing engagement with social media and other technologies will actually increase our need for physical community.
Whether they negate our need for a sense of nationhood, because of a growing awareness of our global citizenship, remains to be seen.
However, this much is very clear: how we define ourselves for the world around us is changing. We will need to be discerning when it comes to reducing our reliance on face-time in favour of Facebook.
Click here to listen to Mal Fletcher's BBC interview on this issue.