Do you find yourself reaching out to friends over an update or tweet rather than a cup of coffee? Do you find a 140 character comment more gratifying than a deep-and-meaningful face to face (real time) conversation? If your answer is yes, you may be a victim of ‘Technology Overload’ according to well-known social theorist Sherry Turkle. In a recent interview Turkle told the BBC: ‘We’ve created a computer culture, a digital culture that has in some way gone amiss…constant connection can be bad for us, because kids are growing up who cannot tolerate solitude…conversation, because constant quick connection is simpler and more instantly gratifying. The problem for Turkle is that ‘constant connection lets people hide from each other’ even if they’re in the same room or on the same web site.
We are constantly connected to friends and family through an absent-presence in the online world. More than 10 million Australians have Facebook accounts and 11 million have signed up to YouTube (see David Cowling’s Blog ‘Social Media News)’. It is clear that we have a strong relationship with digital technology. But Turkle wonders: is this relationship unhealthy? ‘We’re smitten with this technology’ she says, ‘and we just have to get a little bit less smitten and get a grip’. But get a grip of what? What is the social reality or future that Turkle would prefer? A future in which we have the option to connect with others rather than the compulsion.
The nature of online relationships – their forms, productivity, effects – are increasingly questioned as social media eases its way into our everyday lives. Some have wondered if digitally mediated relationships are replacing ‘real’ relationships. Technology overload may be amongst us, but for all the negatives, there are certainly positives – especially for young people. Social media provides young people with a different tool for social engagement, including opportunities to become productive, conscientious contributors to local and global communities.
Young adult literature fans for instance, have harnessed digital technology to engage with political and social problems and debates. Kylie Northover for the Saturday Times writes: ‘They have limited disposable income and can’t vote, but today’s teenagers are wielding more power than ever before, and, increasingly, are helping to shape the political landscape. And interestingly, pop culture, in particular young adult literature, is one of the main vehicles – along with social media – propelling these changes’.
The Harry Potter Alliance is one of the world’s largest fan bases underpinning politics with fantasy in on and offline spaces to do social good. ‘They fight the ”Dark Arts” of the real world – human rights abuses, inequality, illiteracy – just as Potter and his friends do in the books, harnessing the influence of pop culture to create real-world social change’ says Northover. The Harry Potter Alliance created the Imagine Better Project. ‘Then there are the Nerdfighters, another global community of primarily teenagers and young adults, built around brothers Hank and John Green’. The brothers run Project for Awesome (P4A) which inundated YouTube with videos promoting NPOs to get their message across. In 2010 and 2011 P4A raised over $100,000 for charity.
Social media gives young people visibility, voice and reach. Fan bases build quickly online as individuals unite around unique interests. Have digital technologies created a seductive ‘culture of privacy?’ and solitude as Sherry Turkle suggests? Perhaps politics, traditional relationships, opinions, and activism have been reshaped in digital spaces as the real world and the fantasy collide.