Digital life is real life

From Superconnected, Chapter 1:

Internet connectedness is a reflection of the ways in which social factors like socioeconomic status, educational background, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc., play out in the physical world. This is because the online, digital world is not a separate entity from the offline, physical world. It is part of it.

Online activity can make more visible and amplify concerns, problems, and divisions that are part of social life in physical space, and it can raise concern about new issues, too. But the digital world is in every way real and is deeply integrated with everyday lived experiences and with the future of our societies—and ourselves—which makes it critically important to examine and understand.

Though obstacles remain to worldwide digital access and to the full realization of the potential of these technologies for all, the internet and digital media still afford tremendous opportunities for social connectedness and social change. They have become embedded in nearly every facet of modern life, including cities, cars, home appliances, lighting and heating products, and health and lifestyle monitoring.

In all kinds of spaces, from the global to the local and everything in between, individuals and their communities and societies have become interconnected, their lives dramatically affected, their environments increasingly saturated with technology. So in the end, the title of this book seems appropriate . . . because to an extent previously unimagined, and with the almost unlimited potential for further integration, the world has indeed become technologically and socially superconnected.

What is techno-social life?

Human experience is at the same time technologically infused and highly social. Life is techno-social in the fullest sense of the word.

In this book, and in all my work, I hyphenate the word to call equal attention to both the technological and the social and their equivalent importance in the examination and understanding of modern life. The technological and the social are in intimate interaction, constantly influencing one another. Both sides of the hyphen are equally important and central to the study of life in the digital age.

My new book Superconnected explores the techno-social in a wide-ranging way, from the micro to the macro — from the urges individuals can feel to stay in near-constant contact with friends online, to the ways that social media is utilized by groups, organizations, and governments.  Contrary to fears that political and civic engagement is dying or dead in modern life, it remains very much alive. Social media routinely prompts face-to-face interaction, and encourages political participation.

Of course, reaching out to others on social media is not the same as doing so face-to-face, and can induce what has been called slacktivism or hashtag activism — the substitution of talking about doing something (especially on social media) for actually doing something face-to-face. But using social social media to organize collective efforts can be quite productive indeed, and the most effective movements blend online and offline efforts.

Social life – living in tandem with others, in relationships, in families, in communities – is among the aspects of people’s lives most profoundly changed when information and communication technology enters the equation.  By bringing people into one another’s awareness, allowing them to discover commonalities, and providing the means by which they can contact one another, the internet and digital media contribute mightily to the “techno-social life” that Superconnected explores.

The digital prompts the face-to-face

One of my most important research findings is that digital tech use prompts, rather than deters, face-to-face interaction. It provides us with tools that we employ to make it more likely to occur, not less. This contradicts early fears and worries that the digital would somehow supplant the face-to-face — worries that many still hold. But a large body of research now indicates that the more people use the internet and digital media, the more social contact they have with their existing friends (see Chapter 7 in Superconnected for citations and more on this).

As this chapter details and makes clear, email, social media, and mobile phones provide easy, convenient, cost-effective means for people to remain in contact and to arrange dates to get together physically. Internet users’ social networks tend to be more diverse than those of non-internet users, allowing them to remain in contact with multiple social circles. Users of social media sites tend to have more close relationships than non-users, with Facebook users in particular (and especially frequent Facebook users) more likely to have close connections and core confidants than those who do not use the site. And such relationships are generally sustained through a combination of online and offline interactions, each of which can complement the other and even occur simultaneously.

Research also indicates that people most often select their online friends from their face-to-face social circles. Internet users tend to stay in better touch with their neighbors than non-internet users and to form more local ties. People who use social network sites to learn more about people they know offline often feel more a part of their offline communities and are more likely to bring those whom they know face-to-face onto their online social networking sites.

At the same time, long-distance friends and family use social media and text messaging to stay in touch. This makes it more likely that they will remain socially tied over time and get together face-to-face in the future. And it permits a community to persist when its members can no longer meet face-to-face or when the community no longer exists geographically.

There’s lots more on this topic that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom in Chapter 7 of Superconnected.