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Is the smartphone just a social crutch?

It’s a social crutch. A distraction that feeds our endemic ADD, and an insidious device that erodes our capacity to connect with the people who really matter.

Or it’s a godsend for the shy, a way for the soft-spoken to have their voices heard; a tool that allows us to connect with others in meaningful ways whether we’re standing in a queue or watching TV.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s both.

What are smartphones doing to our social lives anyway, to our capacity to connect with others – even our very sense of self? The prevailing wisdom, in many cases, is that smartphones are bad for us, that friendships formed online are of a lesser order than friendships “in real life”, and that our constant connection through the devices we keep at our side and in our hands is leading to a lack of the very thing so many of us yearn for.

Nearly two weeks ago I chatted to Eusebius McKaiser on Talk at 9 about the use of smartphones in social settings after he spotted this piece by Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal. If texting at the table was always considered beyond the pale, what about tweeting, BBMing and checking in on Foursquare? (A friend tells me she’s the mayor of somebody’s bedroom — not her own.) It’s reached the point where people are putting their phones out of reach when they get together, as a way to force themselves to pay attention to the other people at the table rather than everyone else outside of the room.

Rosman quotes Bevy Smith, who hosts celebrity dinners from which smartphones are banned:

“Smartphones have become social escorts, Ms. Smith says. ‘When people walk into a room where they don’t know anyone or feel insecure, they reach into their bags and start staring at the screen,’ says Ms. Smith, who is an active after-the-party tweeter.”

Ms Smith is absolutely right, of course. All too often, my phone is a social crutch. I freely admit that; I’ve lost count of how much social awkwardness it has rescued me from. And yet it’s also the most powerful social tool I have, the device that links me most reliably to the social media platforms I have grown to love for their ability to connect me other people, other ideas, other opinions.

It’s my art exhibition that has brought all of these debates to life — because it turns out that art and social media add up to a really good way to connect with others. I’ve spent the past two Saturdays at Velo, and both of them have been a constant stream of people I know both from Twitter and real life, new friends and old.

The 19-year-old poet and his mother, who bought one of my works (the title is “I am that which emerged from the fire”) because it spoke to her, the recently divorced woman who teared up because she realised, looking at my work, that it was OK to say that life is tough. The Australian called Bruce — yes, really — who bought Panic after wandering into the gallery by chance. The toddler for whom I painted a first birthday gift. Novelists, psychologists, editors, clients, friends, family — all of them came along to see the work I’d tweeted about so many times over the months. (In fact, there were times in which my offline conversations interfered with the task of tweeting – because this exhibition is also in many ways a campaign, and needed to be communicated as widely as possible.)

So Twitter, Facebook and my smartphone have been central to the process of creating, sharing and connecting. I may paint with lipstick, but I also photograph my work with my iPhone, upload it to share, and wait for the comments. It was the positive feedback I got from my Twitter followers and Facebook friends which convinced me to take the leap and put my work on show, and it is why I include tweets in my work, because as snatches of Joburg conversation, they make as much sense as eavesdropping on the kugels at the next table at Tasha’s.

red light district
(Some of the texts in this work are tweets courtesy of @Pigspotter and @AkiAnastasiou)

Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor whose work I’ve been citing in my presentations for the past two years, has written that “in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude … we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether”. Turkle is one of the loudest and most prominent intellectuals to call for us to log off and switch to airline mode. The points she makes in that essay are perfectly, even painfully valid. But paradoxically, notes Nathan Jurgenson, “The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity … never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.” Whereas in the past, reality was quite simply that (a state of being that nobody besides artists and philosophers found especially noteworthy) now the act of logging off prompts an existential crisis of Sartrean proportions.

But at the same time, all this obsession with disconnecting even as we spend more and more of our lives being connected is turning into what Jurgenson describes as a “fetishization of the offline”. Facebook is real life, he argues, because Facebook depends on real life. It can’t function without it.

There is no real distinction between the digital and the physical, Jorgenson argues, because lived reality involves “the constant interpenetration of the online and offline”. Though I don’t entirely agree with him – while he talks about the flaws in “digital dualism”, he doesn’t touch on how we perform for imagined audiences on social media platforms — it does tie in with my experience as an artist in the age of social media. When I paint, I go into a private space and disappear from view for a while. Radio silence, you can call it. But I always return, because invariably it is the knowledge of the audience out there that drives the creation almost as much as the private compulsion. I write for an audience, and I paint for an audience too.

So the art I create is not divided into the physical and the digital; it is both. There is a constant shifting of energy one to the other, the work created in messy, tactile physicality, then uploaded into the digital realm where, freed from the limitations of the work of art before the age of mechanical reproduction, it can be shared. The photos never quite capture the subtleties of the colours of the physical object, but both the physical and the digital are part of the creative process, and meaning resides in both.

Turkle writes, “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection”. In many ways, she is right. But in my experience, connection can also lead to conversation, which in turn leads to further connection, and creation, connection and then conversation again. Perhaps the most beautiful irony of all of this is that it is thanks to social media and my smartphone that I have had more face to face conversations and connected in meaningful ways with more people over the past three weeks than the past three months, perhaps even the past year.

As I told Eusebius during our conversation (one during which I was supposed to tweet), the issue for me is not one of being surgically attached to a smartphone and the channel it offers to the ceaseless scrolling of status updates and tweets. Rather, it’s often a matter of something as old-fashioned as manners. If I’m in conversation with somebody, I try to give them my attention – not because the physical, offline world is more important than the digital, but because I recognise that they are entitled to it.

No matter how high tech our lives become, it will always be as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Author

  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.

28 Comments

  1. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 20 July 2012

    Generally speaking, social media’s main purpose seems to be the perpetuation of the inane.

  2. The 19 year old poet approves this piece. Fantastically well-written and insightful, Sarah.

    I’ve also found that, in my generation, it’s not always considered rude to tweet and message while talking face-to-face unless the conversation is particularly deep or meaningful. I think younger people are becoming more and more able to hold several conversations at once – almost a sort of multiple personality disorder, but a useful one.

  3. MLH MLH 21 July 2012

    Sarah, you are good. You can turn any subject into shameless (in this case, professional) self-promotion. I wonder how Stuart’s mother feels about him tweeting and messaging while she’s trying to have a conversation with him? In other words: who decides what’s deep and what’s meaningful?

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 21 July 2012

    Can you people who understand about smartphones and technology explain to me what “about 4,300,000 results (in 0.16 seconds )” means when I log in to Thoughtleader?

  5. PM PM 21 July 2012

    It is not just a crutch, but sometimes an addiction. When it comes to rule our lives, when that ring or vibration determines our actions, then it is time for us to take over and declare our independence. If you are perfectly capable of ignoring it for significant periods of time, then you are doing OK. I really enjoy turning it off for an entire day, and just ignoring it.

  6. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 July 2012

    Can’t ANYONE answer my question? I see we are over 12 million now!

  7. Lennon Lennon 24 July 2012

    @ Lyndall: Which page do you see the results on?

  8. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 July 2012

    Lennon

    I log in to Thoughleader through Google. I see it on the first login before Thoughtleader is actually clicked in, at the top of the page.

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 July 2012

    Lennon: copied it looks like this:

    SearchAbout 12,200,000 results (0.20 seconds) Search settings
    Advanced search
    Web History
    Search Help
    Web
    Images
    Maps
    Videos
    News
    BooksPlacesBlogsDiscussionsApplicationsPatents
    MoreFewer
    Port Elizabeth
    Auto-detected
    Change location
    Search Options
    The web
    Pages from South Africa

    Fewer search toolsMore search tools

    Search ResultsThought Leader |www.thoughtleader.co.za/Cached – Similar
    You +1’d this publicly. Undo
    By Lukhona Mnguni Those of us who are born in July are growingly becoming either miserable or jealous over Madiba. There is hardly a fuss about anyone’s …
    Bloggers AZwww.thoughtleader.co.za/bloggers/
    Bloggers A-Z. Adam Haupt. Adam Haupt writes about film, media …

  10. Lennon Lennon 24 July 2012

    Ah…… The number of results is pretty much anything which Google has indexed that contains anything that it considers relevant to your search using “Thoughtleader”.

    The results can vary based on updates done to other sites which might contain the same or similar words (known as keywords) as well as new sites being indexed and others removed from indexing..

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 July 2012

    Lennon

    Er??? What does that mean? How many people actually READ it?

  12. Lennon Lennon 25 July 2012

    @ Lyndall: No. It is the number of pages which Google has on record which contain either the exact term or similar terms.

  13. Max Max 25 July 2012

    Lyndall it means that google finds 4 300 000 pages on the internet that have the word “thoughtleader” on them.

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 July 2012

    Lennon and Max

    “Thoughtleader” or “Thoughleader.co.za” which is what I google?

  15. Lennon Lennon 26 July 2012

    @ Lyndall: No matter what you type, Google will display the results, including the number of pages around the internet which have the exact word / phrase or similar words / phrases.

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 26 July 2012

    Lennon

    Well that is meaningless is it not? I googled my own name once – and got everything relating to every Lyndall and every Beddy!

  17. Lennon Lennon 26 July 2012

    Lyndall: It’s hardly meaningless. The point is to inform you of how many pages within websites indexed by Google contain words related to your search. It might seem pointless given the vast number of websites which are active on the Web, but not every search will give you millions of results.

    Depending on what you search for, you might even get not results at all.

  18. Max Max 26 July 2012

    If you google “thoughtleader.co.za” then you will get a result that includes all the webpages on the internet that have the words “thoughtleader.co.za” somewhere on each page.

    Lyndall, if you google “Lyndall Beddy” (in inverted commas) rather than Lyndall Beddy , you get all pages with only the exact name Lyndall Beddy. Typing a phrase without the punctuation will return all pages with the word Lyndall as well as all pages with the word Beddy.

  19. @MLH : My mother loves my tweeting actually. She’s also massively into social networking. As long as I’m able to communicate with her equally (which I am) she doesn’t mind.

  20. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 July 2012

    Max

    Thanks. Maybe I will google myself again just for fun, now that I know how to do it properly.

  21. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 July 2012

    Max

    Now “Thoughtleader.co.za” has 129,000 results and I have 4,700 results.

    The first one shows I am on Facebook which I am NOT! My idiot of a husband opened a Facebook Page for me when I told him I was not ready and did not have the time!

  22. Joanne Joanne 28 July 2012

    I think it’s true that we’re using smart phones as a “social crutches” (I know I’ve pretended to be checking Whatsapp in an awkward moment before!) The argument is always that electronic social media makes for poorer communication – and I agree with that to a certain extent – but I think we need to consider that the way we communicate in general might be changing – in a world where everything is faster-paced and people want instant results, maybe smart phones are a way to ensure that we don’t lose touch with each other altogether? Obviously I lament the fact that face-to-face communication isn’t the highest priority today, but maybe smart phones are the way we adapt to communicating in a changing world?

  23. Tal Tal 29 July 2012

    In China, there are popular social networking platforms (for which, naspers through tencent is, doubtless, grateful). I have yet to see a smartphone zombie at a restaurant. Maybe it’s something to do with the complexity of shared platters and chopsticks. Probably it has a lot to do with the complexity of etiquette and face. Almost certainly it has to do with the fact that if you eat with someone here, they are important to you. Eating and food is important. Chi le ma? – Have you eaten? is the equivalent to “How are you?” or “Are you well?”. A function of history, I suppose.

    The Chinese are by no means behind in their adoption or “borrowing” (in some cases) of the technology. In cultural terms, face-to-face “harmony” just seems to be much more important.

    @Lyndall Beddy: as Lennon and Max have tried to explain, Google uses a referencing system. The use of inverted commas around word combinations means the words are sought on the same page and, preferably, in the same order. Without this, you will have all the pages with any of the words, ranked in order of a system that tries to work out what you want but is still a rather stupid piece of software rather than a human brain. Your name appears in the comments of a great many blogs… ergo, you will get 4700 or so results.

    May I suggest that your web browser is a better starting point for reaching a desired page on the web? I do not search for thoughtleader. I click on it.

  24. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 August 2012

    Max, Lennon and Tal

    If you are correct why do the figures for “lyndall beddy” go Up AND Down from 5,100 results to 3,000 results? I keep ADDING to the total of comments, but I don’t subtract from them?

  25. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 August 2012

    Max, Lennon and Tal

    The results for ‘lyndall beddy” have gone from the highest at 5,900 returns to 1,300 returns (a few minutes ago on Sunday afternoon).

    They can’t be results for the amount of my comments – how could 4,000 comments dissapear in a day?

    Do they perhaps relate to amount of people logging in?

  26. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 17 August 2012

    Max, Lennon and Tal,

    Results for “lyndall beddy” drop to about 1000 if I don’t comment, and go up to near 5000 if I do comment, so your explanation makes no sense.

    Am I being tagged, and if so by how many people, or is it just spiders on sites?

  27. Cats can be jerks Cats can be jerks 2 August 2013

    You actually make it appear really easy together with your presentation
    however I to find this topic to be really something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely large for me.

    I am taking a look forward in your next submit, I will try to get the grasp of it!

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