James C. Banks

The Social Cost of Social Media

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2011 at 2:56 am

If you’re worried that social media might be slowing chipping away at your humanity, you can find an interesting debate on the topic between Roger Scruton and Tyler Cowen here.  Scruton argues that, by making the duties of relationships more easily fulfilled, social media actually ends up depreciating the value of these relationships and substituting virtual friendships for real friendships. Cowen counter-argues that there is no evidence that people who use social media are less engaged in the real world and that there is not only anecdotal evidence but statistics to back this claim up.

Generally, I think that Scruton has the more convincing argument, though he does not package it as well. To say, as Cowen, does that individuals who use social media are more engaged in civic activity than other individuals does not actually establish that social media encourages individuals to engage in civic activity, only that individuals who are more naturally inclined to engage in civic activity are more likely to use social media.

Scruton starts making this point, but never fully articulates it which is a pity since this simple point calls into question the entire framework of Cowen’s argument from statistics. While Facebook users are probably more communally engaged than non-Facebook users, it is also true that social media applications have led to a decline in traditionally civic activities like church-going.  People no longer congregate to intermingle, but electronic communion is only theoretically—and not in practice—a substitute for actual, face-to-face interaction.

Almost as interesting as the debate itself were the conversations that followed from it in the wine-and-cheese reception which followed.  I had a number of people tell me that, in some ways, they leaned toward Scruton’s position, but, of course, they qualified this partial approval by saying that the opportunity or threat of social media “was all in the way that we used it.”  This assessment misses the point entirely: no one intends to allow the virtual plasma which is social media envelope their actual lives; but this does not mean that social media has no tendency to do so.

My general endorsement of Scruton’s overarching theme does not mean that I am an infrequent user of social media—and I am grateful for the many friendships that it has allowed me to keep intact.  Nor do I think that social media is the only—or even the most—formidable cause of civic deterioration.  Social media may make us hold friendship cheaper, but medical technology which lengthens our lives beyond natural limits (for which I am, nonetheless, also grateful) might cause us to jettison a virtue like courage altogether as we come to gauge it as too expensive. Social media will not be the leviathan that casts our civilization to Gehenna with a bang; more likely, it is just another whimper which punctuates another world’s end.

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