The Devil You Know

Is the increase in virtual interaction affecting how we behave?

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

According to the movie The Social Network, Facebook, the world's most popular networking site, was born of dark motives.

On an autumn night in 2003, the story begins, spurned Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg takes a notion to vent his frustration with the fairer sex by creating a website called "Facemash," where visitors can rank pairs of ill-begotten photos according to the hapless women subjects' attractiveness. Within hours, the site draws so much traffic that it crashes Harvard's network, and Mark winds up on academic probation—and hundreds of female students' hit lists.

But the wild popularity of Facemash sparks a chain of events that eventually result in The Facebook, as it was called until Napster mastermind Sean Parker reportedly suggested to Zuckerberg that "the" was uncool. Facebook now has more than five hundred million active users around the world and is the third-largest US web company (following Google and Amazon), valued at more than $40 billion.

Left to right, Hank Klibanoff, Reshma Shah, Gary Laderman

Certainly a fraction of those five hundred million "friends" are Emory students—as well as faculty, staff, and alumni. There are Facebook pages for Emory University, Emory Healthcare, the Emory Alumni Association, Emory Sustainability, Emory Report, the Emory Eye Center, the Emory Eagles—more than fifty in all for Emory alone. The Emory alumni page has 2,480 friends.

And Facebook is just one outlet for the ceaseless virtual interaction taking place across this community, which is but a microcosm of the wired world. According to studies by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, in 2009, 79 percent of American adults used the Internet, and 46 percent accessed a social networking site like Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn. Among teens and young adults, 93 percent use the Internet, and at least 65 percent of those use online social networking. Even seniors who are computer-savvy seem to be getting into the game, with social networking among those over fifty rising from 22 percent in April 2009 to 42 percent in May 2010.

And electronic communication is hardly limited to computers. More than 70 percent of adults with cell phones text regularly and a staggering 87 percent of teen cell users text an average of fifty times a day. And of those mobile users, 23 percent of adults and 27 percent of teens use their handhelds to hop on the Internet on a typical day—with 23 percent of teens accessing social networking sites via phone.

The idea that we are "always on," constantly accessible and exchanging information through various networks and electronic devices, is hardly novel. From socializing to shopping, working to networking, technology makes it possible to conduct more and more of life's business—and pleasure—online.

But scholars, social scientists, think tanks, and the media are showing increasing interest in the real-life consequences of a virtual world—how the digital revolution is changing the way we act, interact, and even think.

One of the central questions is whether the volume of technology use is creating new generations of distracted, screen-addicted multitaskers unable to think and focus deeply on meaningful subjects. Last year the New York Times launched a series of articles under the moniker "Your Brain on Computers" to "examine how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave." The headlines alone tell the story: "More Americans Sense a Downside to an Always Plugged-In Experience," "Attached to Technology and Paying a Price," and more recently, "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction."

This is old news to Emory's Mark Bauerlein, English professor and author of The Dumbest Generation, who has studied the effects of electronic interaction among teens and college students. The propagation of cell phones and laptops among young people, he says, has a profound impact on not only their attention span, but also their intellectual development. Whereas once social life was limited to school and after-school activities, now teens are literally in constant contact with one another, isolating themselves in a bubble of "BFFs."

"Peer pressure used to end at dinnertime," he says. "Now there is no end to peer-to-peer contact. It has always been important for that contact to have a limit."

That's because teenagers don't tend to encourage one another to cultivate their minds, he says—or their morals. "The presence of peers generally hinders intellectual growth," he says. "The problem is, in the world of adolescence, virtues are harder to come by and the vices and narcissism of adolescence often overpower the better sides."

Which begs another, deeper, and darker follow-up question: as they spend ever-increasing hours engaged in electronic socializing and networking, do people behave differently in those virtual circles than they do in face-to-face situations?

There's no question that the dangers of the digital realm have gotten plenty of bad press lately. The potential for anonymity lies at the heart of the matter, and is blamed for a good deal of bad behavior online.

Take a trend that has made dozens of headlines in recent months: cyberbullying. The topic of yet another New York Times series, virtual viciousness among young people has been blamed for teenagers' unhappiness, social isolation, and even cases of suicide.

Some observers liken the Internet to a few stiff drinks: it may lessen people's inhibitions, but it doesn't wholly transform their personalities. Bauerlein, for one, seems to feel that if online behavior is worse than real life, it's usually only a matter of degree. Kids, he says, haven't changed much; it's just that instead of sticks and stones, now they have smartphones.

"If there are a thousand kids from one school on Facebook, and there are three bullies and terrorists among them who are going to sneak nasty photos and post them for everyone, it makes the actions of those three appear much more representative than they really are," he says. "In truth, it's the same old patterns of teenage nastiness and peer pressure and victimization, but there are new weapons with which to unleash old motives."

Others, though, are more concerned that technology is warping social norms. Writing about cases of students "outing" gay peers on social networking sites—sometimes with tragic results—Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald says, "No, there is nothing new about pulling pranks. What is new is the distance we now have from other people, this tendency to objectify them. What is new is the worldwide reach technology now affords us. And what is new is the cruelty, this willingness to casually destroy someone else with a few clicks of a mouse."

Emory sociologist Robert Agnew has studied how negative pressures push people toward criminal behavior. Last spring, he coedited an issue of the Journal on Contemporary Criminal Justice, in which the authors of one article found that cyberbullying appears to be even more harmful—and have a stronger association to crime—than traditional schoolyard bullying.

"The impersonal nature of cyberbullying might make it even easier to engage in," he said in a podcast on cyberbullying versus the face-to-face kind. "Individuals who might not necessarily engage in traditional bullying might well turn to cyberbullying."

Among adults, too, the invisibility cloak of the Internet, combined with its power to brush against thousands of fellow users with one click, makes it a formidable weapon.

Julie Zhuo, a product design manager for Facebook, recently wrote a Times opinion piece on "trolling"—the practice of posting inflammatory or derogatory comments on Internet forums. "Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior," she writes. "Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one's car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People—even ordinary, good people—often change their behavior in radical ways."

In many cases, the subjects that prod Internet users to vent their anger are classic hot-button issues, like politics and religion. Emory's Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science, notes that political discourse online is increasing, marked by heated intensity and often outright ugliness. The level of malevolence, Gillespie says, probably reflects an increasingly fractured media, which in turn reflects an increasingly polarized Congress.

"My hunch is that the proliferation of information networks has contributed to greater polarization and not cooperation," she says. "People feel protected by anonymity on the Internet so it gives them an outlet to say rude things, but then, they are primed to say rude things because we spend a lot of time watching shows where the sole purpose is to make fun of people and put them in a bad light. I would be surprised if it did not seep over into public discourse."

Emory religion professor Gary Laderman experienced virtual vitriol firsthand through Religion Dispatches, an online magazine he founded to offer thoughtful analysis of a range of religious topics and influences. Tending toward more progressive viewpoints, Religion Dispatches rapidly became the target of adamant and angry conservative voices—many of which spoke from the dark.

"The biggest issue we have had is anonymous online comments," Laderman says. "Religion is a topic that generates a lot of heat, if not outright hate speech. I'm a scholar, and I want people to be respectful and tolerant. I believe in academic freedom. But I feel in this context we have a responsibility to maintain a measure of control over what can be put on the site."

Laderman and his colleagues recently made the decision to discontinue anonymous comments on the magazine's main stories, although they do accept letters to the editor—in which the writer is identified. "People were upset," he says. "They wrote in, saying we were being undemocratic and going against the whole spirit of online communication. But I don't buy that it's democratic when you can hide behind some avatar. The responsible thing to do is say your name and be up-front. The tone and tenor of things change when it's a real letter to the editor."

Hank Klibanoff, Emory's new James M. Cox Jr. Chair in Journalism, agrees that anonymous responses are a quagmire for any media outlet. A news industry veteran and Pulitzer–winning author, Klibanoff says he has been surprised and disappointed to see some newspapers publish unsigned reader comments from their websites—even in their print editions.

"I remember when newspapers never would have carried a letter to the editor that was not signed by someone, using their true name, and not verified as having come from that person," he says. "Now that standard seems to be gone."

From his perspective as an English professor, Bauerlein agrees that the Internet blurs individual identity, accountability, and authorship in ways that can lead users to make poor judgments, particularly when it comes to ethical scholarship and research.

The web has made cheating much easier for students, for instance—even when they don't necessarily intend to.

"When texts can circulate so easily, and be disengaged so easily from the author, there is going to be a rise of cheating—mostly plagiarism," he says. "The Internet lowers the distinction between authors and readers, texts are less tied to words, and words are less proprietary."

Despite the downsides, there is another, more promising outgrowth of the increase in online communication—one that blossoms when like-minded people find one another, untethered by geography.

In the two years since its launch, Religion Dispatches has grown steadily in popularity, with seven thousand subscribers on its listserv and between two and three hundred thousand visitors to the site each month. It's an example of an emerging sort of subject-specific, interactive website where people can go for thoughtful discussion and analysis, and—if they behave—air their own views.

Religion Dispatches is a site about religion, but there are growing numbers of online sources for religion itself—individual or communal spiritual practice. Virtual spirituality "seems to be valid for people," Laderman says. "I don't think it's a lesser form of practice. It's probably the future. Whether it's establishing a church on [the virtual-world site] Second Life or maintaining a memorial to someone who has died, it is genuine religious investment and involvement signaling a profound change in how people are religious in the twenty-first century."

In other areas, too, the proliferation of social media and online communication actually serves to increase civic participation, knowledge, and candor. In the commercial business world, the Internet has transformed the way consumers obtain information about products; now consumer sites and online customer reviews allow potential buyers to benefit from others' experience before purchasing. While there are certainly lone (and anonymous) voices, the sheer volume of consumer communication helps bolster its validity, according to Reshma Shah, assistant professor of marketing at Goizueta Business School and coauthor of the recent book How to Make Money with Social Media.

"Technology makes it very easy for information to get out there, whether positive or negative," Shah says. "In the past, corporate secrets had to pass from one person to another, but now people can put information out as soon as they have it and do it anonymously as well. Business organizations know this, and they are much more careful about what they say publicly and do privately. I do think it helps keep them more honest."

Many companies also have plunged into the realm of social media themselves, using it as a marketing tool, as Shah explains in her book. But unlike traditional marketing strategies, in Internet-based "brand communities," consumers are active participants in the conversation—and they can recognize hollow self-promotion on the part of the company.

"Brand communities are honest about the company for the most part," Shah says. "Of course there are deceptive practices, such as when companies plant positive reviews. But I think in the end things right themselves. People can sniff that out, when it's the party line or corporate communication."

Virtual politicking is equally lively, if not more so. For years there has been an abundance of political jokes, cartoons, and anecdotes being shared among web surfers of every ideological stripe, many of which have been known to ruffle feathers if spotted by the wrong friend on Facebook. But more recently, political leaders and candidates have jumped into the fray with "official" messages and campaign tactics, aimed at reaching voters where they live: online.

"This is the election when it became more deeply embedded in the rhythms of campaigning," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, told the Associated Press after the November elections. "It's not so much that as a single thing it influences people's votes but that it's now so inextricably a part of the political communication landscape."

Emory's Gillespie, who studies political participation, says there is evidence that Internet, social media, and especially text-messaging campaigns can boost voter turnout. "It's absolutely essential now for political candidates to have a web presence," she says.

For the news industry, the social media explosion presents a confusing tangle of opportunity and risk. Formerly managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Klibanoff says the wildfire spread of information via online networks keeps reporters under tremendous pressure to feed "viral" stories to a news machine that literally never stops. That makes it incredibly tempting to skimp on fact-checking and accuracy in order to beat other outlets to the post—particularly since newsroom staffs have been slashed across the country.

"I think legitimate journalists are at a crossroads where social media has the potential to be a game-changer, and not necessarily a positive one," Klibanoff says. "I liken reporting to research, and you wonder what impact it will have if researchers are being measured and evaluated by how many times a day they tweet or post their findings on Facebook."

But the slipperiest slope for journalists when it comes to social media may be how they use it themselves. Is it okay for a reporter to express opinions on Twitter about people or events they cover? Is Facebook a reliable source of information? Is it ethical for a writer's personal blog to reveal information editors cut from a story? Most seasoned editors, including Klibanoff, would say no.

"It's bad reporting to rely solely on online sources," he says. "I think news organizations, because of their hunger for as many hits as they can get, are more vulnerable than ever to fraud."

However, Klibanoff adds, it is possible for social media to be used responsibly, and to great effect—as in the lead of a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published in October. After a young family was killed in a car accident, reporters quoted from the mother's MySpace page, where she had wondered about her twins' future: "What will my boys look like when they grow up? . . . Will the personalities that I know now still exist when they are twenty?"

"Years ago, those beautifully powerful, loving remarks would only be in a private scrapbook," Klibanoff says. "It's appropriate to use a combination of news judgment and viscera and common sense."

The poignant dreams of a young mother expressed in a receptive online community are a far cry from Harvard students rating women's looks on an insidious site called Facemash, where it all began. It's a good reminder that you can use the Internet to be whoever you want—even yourself.

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