Tuesday, 7 April 2009

This blog is damaging your brain!

Well, I hope that it's not, but I was very interested to hear Lady Greenfield's concerns about social networking as expressed to the House of Lords recently. There's a summary and just over four minutes of audio here:

I share some of these reservations: the amount of time that our students spend on Facebook is quite terrifying. Concentration spans can be affected, and sometimes students seem unable to deal with reading that isn't delivered in small chunks, in the style of brief updates and short reports. Furthermore, much of their Facebook activity seems to revolve around presenting the appearance of a life full of friends, events and screenloads of personality - even when they may be struggling to keep up with work or puzzle out exactly who they are and what they really want. It is also the case that the facile nature of online 'friendship' can be both more attractive and ultimately less rewarding than the real thing, worked out through all the awkward and immediate interactions of people without a keyboard in front of them.

Yet the assumptions that Greenfield makes seem quite odd to me; some of her concerns spring from a view of society which imagines ideal people and then castigates those who don't live up to it. Most of us respond to the 'immediate pleasure' of activities; we do not always choose to live life on the basis that something might be tedious or unpleasant now but will pay off later. We drink with friends because we're having a good time now; we don't consider tomorrow's hangover until it arrives. We eat the fantastically unhealthy meal at a restaurant now, because we enjoy it; we worry about not fitting into our jeans later. Even reading gives the immediate pleasure of disappearing into the world of the novel, and of finding out what happens: we read on, even if we should really be washing the dishes/doing the laundry/mopping the floor so we can feel good later on about having finished the housework. (And no, I don't want to find out about the princess herself! Really! This is not the point of all reading.) Enjoyment now often takes priority over imagined enjoyment at some point in the future. Greenfield's assumption that normal (or current) human behaviour systematically pays attention to the long-term consequences of our actions is simply unrealistic. Social networking addiction is just another instant pleasure to add to the list. Delayed gratification is a hard-won thing, not something that's built into our automatic responses. I can't see how our brains would need to operate differently to accommodate screen-based immediate reward rather than any other kind.

As for the supposed loss of empathy and loss of identity, this also seems misdirected to me. Much social networking is directed primarily towards telling others how the individual feels, and expressions of support, sympathy and encouragement often seem more easily expressed online. The people I've observed online seem far from losing a sense of 'where they themselves finish and the outside world begins'; rather they are both creating positive identity markers for themselves and shaping spaces for themselves within the online world that interact in various (sometimes very sophisticated) ways with the outside world. A person who has developed an identity online is more aware of who they are, not less. The danger, as I touched on above, is that there is a forced separation between a happy, successful online personality and a 'real-life' person who is isolated and miserable. But this is not what Greenfield seems to be worried about.

Having read this back through, I conclude that I appear to be more positive about social networking than I had previously thought! So there you are: blogging is also a learning experience, helping us to work through what our opinions really are as we put them into writing. And I don't think my brain has changed or rotted just yet.


  1. I guess one thing is unavoidably true about online social networking, it's already a fact and it's almost certainly going to embed itself deeper into our lives, whether we like it or not. So, perhaps it's better that thoughtful people engage and influence, rather than disengage and watch rather disdainfully from a distance (anyway I think titles like 'lady' infantilise the human mind!)...

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  3. Have you seen Ben Goldacre's take on Greenfield's ideas, in today's Guardian?


    Even more interesting (from our Web 2.0 perspective!) is Goldacre's original version of the Guardian article, on his own blog: http://www.badscience.net/2009/05/professor-baroness-susan-greenfield-cbe/ (see, in particular, 'the best reason to have a blog').

    (By the way, I deleted the first version of this comment because I noticed there was a bracket missing -- how sad is that!)