Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mobilty, Facebook, Twitter and Social Cohesion

The Economist has an interesting article about mobility and its effect on society. In particular one anecdote of a plumber and a sociologist had a strong resonance.

"Richard Ling, a sociologist at Telenor, the largest Norwegian telephone company, and author of “New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion”, was standing on his porch in Oslo one day, saying farewell to a few guests, when a plumber walked around the corner, talking on his mobile phone to what appeared to be his wife. Mr Ling, who had a leak in the kitchen, was expecting him. But the plumber took Mr Ling and his guests aback by walking right past them and into the house, where he took off his shoes and headed for the kitchen, chattering into his handset all the while."

The article goes on to talk about weak and strong social interactions. In this case the plumbers weak social interaction with the sociologist was overcome by the stronger interaction between the plumber and his wife. Or it could easily be the girl at the checkout counter chatting away to someone on their mobile phone while barely paying attention to the task of paying for their shopping. The anecdotes are there and very strong.

Now that strong social interactions are rarely limited by distance, they are easily overwhelming weak social interactions. But is this a problem? I think so. The weak social interactions are often with random people in every day life - bus drivers, commuters, shop assistants, doctors, police, people on the street, customers in a cafe - rather than with people we've selected as being a part of our "tribe". They are unlikely to be similar to us and this variety of social interaction helps us be less insular. In reading the article I was strongly reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Terry Pratchett.
"Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are... well....human beings."

The dominance of the stronger ties reduces the "Brownian" motion needed to make us human. This loss is what is disturbing about the "mobility" society. We are rapidly shutting out random acts of chance, of serendipity. Nor is it simply mobile phones. Social Networks such as Facebook also produce the same effect. Anything that promotes strong social interactions at the expense of weak ones are culpable.

Services such as Twitter and FriendFeed go towards promoting weak social interactions as a tweeter will not always "know" or have a previous strong social interaction with a follower. I do wonder, however, whether these virtual weak social interactions will again come to dominate over the face-to-face weak social interactions of every day lives.

Banning mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter is not an answer. These services and devices serve a strong purpose of facilitating communication and strengthening social ties. What we need to be aware of is the here and now. To recognise that at certain points the here and now of weak social interactions out weights strong social interactions.

Tags: Social Interactions, Mobile, The Economist, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed