Can Twitter Feel My Pain?

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If you follow this blog, you already know I have a skeptical or worse opinion of social networking technology. My concerns come from a general critique that points to the tendency of technology to suppress the essence of being human. Now cognitive science adds a more solid grounding to that general concern. Writing in Fast Company, futurist Jamais Cascio, commenting on a new publication by Antonio Damasio and colleagues that claims that the human brain is relatively slow writes that “to recognize and empathize with emotional pain, or to acknowledge and celebrate virtue or skill. What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration.”

Putting this finding in the context of the evolving array of social networking systems, like Twitter, the rapid frequency of messages may inhibit the communicating parties from fully capturing the affective context of the relationship, thus diminishing the strength of the interpersonal ties, which is supposed to be the main feature of the software in the first place. Cascio writes further:

What Damasio’s work suggests to me is that there’s a point where an insufficient amount of attention given to a potentially moving encounter means that little or no empathy—compassion or admiration—will result. And while paying attention to another person is important, offering empathy is much more critical. Social numbness simply can’t be healthy for a functioning society.

For more than a decade, tech pundits and business consultants have gone on about the “attention economy,” arguing that attention has economic value due to its limited availability. It strikes me that this may miss the greater point. From a social perspective, what’s limited isn’t attention, but consideration. Not just hearing, but listening. Not just seeing a message, but understanding its meaning.

This might help explain why so many people accepted Burger King’s promotional offer to delete 10 names from their Facebook list of friends. Relationships built through Facebook, Twitter and others lack the fullness of empathy that creates authentic, caring relationships. Like technology in general, social networking systems can produce positive results for the users. If they didn’t, they would not last long. But uncritical use of these systems will also diminish understanding of what it is to be human and push flourishing, the key to sustainability, farther into the background. This tendency is of great concern given that so many users of this technology are young people who are still forming their worldview and mindset. Their sense of caring for others can only be diminished. The Burger King offer revealed the value of a friend as amounting to one-tenth of a hamburger. Those who did this may find, sometime in their lives, that friendship cannot be measured in economic terms and that the relationship is what gives meaning to their lives, but this discovery will surely be made more difficult by their incessant Twittering.

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