Social Networks

Entries related to social networks, group psychology, anthropology, and really any of the social sciences.

Retreat Reflections: Early Morning

Reflections while on a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery on the banks of the Hudson River; February 17, 2018. As is often the case when I am travelling, my sleep was fitful, waking up at various times throughout the night.

At around 5:30, a little after my normal rising time during the week, but a little before my normal rising time during the weekend, I arose and went to the bathroom at the end of the hall. Someone noticed me and said, “Good morning” which was followed by what sounded like an embarrassed silence as he quickly left the bathroom.

After my morning ablutions, and a brief check of news and social media online, I headed downstairs and noticed the sun rising over the Hudson River. I headed out into the little cloister and sat on a bench to watch the sunrise. I took a picture which I shared online.

How much should I be online during a silent retreat? I think it was useful to hear, to read, some of the zeitgeist of my friends; mourning the death of a relative and feeling hopeless about America with its divisiveness and violence. Posting a picture of a sunrise from a monastery seemed like an appropriate level of engagement for this morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social capital recently, especially in terms of George Soros’ comments about social media companies. See Winston Smith’s Facebook Page for some of my recent thoughts on this.

If we carry Soros’ comments forward, and perhaps add a Marxist interpretation on it, perhaps we need to be thinking about alienation of social capital. We use our social capital and expend emotional energy in our posts online. Social media companies try to monetize some of that capital and energy by selling advertisements. Divisiveness is helpful for social media companies to get a clearer sense of what will sell best to whom. We become alienated from the value of our social capital and emotional energy.

There are various things we could do. We could spend more of our time, social capital, and emotional energy off-line. We could seek workers collectives to share our social capital, like Diaspora. We could let it influence how we act online and offline, by becoming less eloquent, hopeless, or maybe even violent. Or, we could become wiser in how we use our social capital and energy online, making it more effective, and perhaps even less alienating.

I have been experimenting with this in various ways. I did 100 days of gratitude, encouraging my friends to post things they are thankful for. Thinking about the book Help, Thanks, Wow, I tried to do this with days of wonder as well, but societal despair quickly found its way in. I’m trying to think of other ways to approach this.

As I watched the sunrise over the Hudson River, I remember an old saying, “The miracle was not that the bush was not consumed. The miracle was that Moses noticed.” I stopped and noticed the sunrise. Perhaps this will be a retreat of noticing God’s miracles in our daily lives. Perhaps, this is a discussion to have on Facebook.

Perhaps there is also something in this about becoming like a child. Jesus said, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven unless you become like a little child. In what ways are we to be like little children? Is some of it looking with wonder and awe at the miracles of daily life, that too many of us as adults, find little opportunity for?

Winston Smith’s Facebook Page

Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment.

- George Soros, Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018

It is an interesting formulation of an old idea. How has our social environment been exploited? How similar is this to the way the physical environment has been exploited?

It isn’t a new idea. For a long time writers have complained about feeling compelled to give away their content in order to be read. I am doing that here. I put my post up. I share links to it on Facebook and Twitter, and hope someone will read it and respond. All of this becomes content to be used by large social media companies to make money off of advertising. Little, if any of that makes its way to the content creators.

To make things worse, the social media companies’ algorithms favor content that will get the most advertising revenue as opposed to the most trustworthy content, or the content that will best lead to the betterment of society.

Soros goes on to say,

Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy.

He talks about John Stuart Mill’s “Freedom of Mind”, and suggest the manipulation that is possible when people start losing freedom of mind has “already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections”.

He then invokes 1984 and Brave New World

This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.

If Winston Smith, the hero of 1984 were alive today, instead of a diary, maybe he would be posting on Facebook. This begs the question of how we understand “thought crimes”.

Some of my libertarian friends might equate “thought crimes” with “hate speech” and fight against rules about hate speech. The Ethical Journalism Network provides a useful five point test for hate speech.

They note the tragic consequences of hate speech, especially in the context of the Rwandan genocide. There first point is to consider “The Position or Status of the Speaker”.

journalists and media are regularly trapped by media-savvy and unscrupulous politicians and community leaders. These skilful users of media stir up disputes and discord in support of their own prejudices and bigoted opinions and rely on media to give coverage to their sensational claims and opinions no matter how incendiary they are.

It is interesting to consider not only the position of the speaker, but the medium they are using for speaking. Soros talks about the large social media companies saying,

The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.

There is also the issue of groupthink. Is this a different way in which thought crimes are prosecuted? Around 2010, Eli Pariser coined the phrase “filter bubble” to describe how people social media algorithms group people together around shared ideas. Are there filter bubbles contributing to groupthink?

In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase “groupthink” which

occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”

Recently at my alma mater, there have been protests that were sparked when a member of the college football team posted racist material on Facebook.

The student was removed from campus and conservatives might bewail what they consider groupthink in the reaction of the students. Yet for it to be groupthink one would have to argue that protesting racism shows a deterioration of moral judgement.

How should we respond to the exploitation of our social environment? Are there things we can do to help repair our social environment? I pose these questions especially for politicians, religious leaders, and journalists.

#SMS17 Beyond the Parish Walls

On Saturday, the South Central Region of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut held an ‘unconference’ where we discussed many topics of interest to the attendees. One topic was social media, which was especially significant since Sunday is Social Media Sunday.

One of the goals of the various regions in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut is to promote inter-parish collaboration, so we talked a bit about how often we liked the pages of the churches around us, and shared their posts. It is my hope that our discussion at the unconference, my blog post about the unconference, and subsequent discussions will lead to better collaboration between churches.

Of course, working in social media, I’m interested in measuring this effect. So, I have put together this list of churches in the South Central Region that I like, and how many of my friends on Facebook like them. The list is probably incomplete, but it is a good starting point. I’d love to see some of my friends do something similar.

Then, we could all make an effort to get to know people from neighboring churches, like them on Facebook, share their posts, and come back at a later time and see how these numbers have changed.

So, here’s my list, with the Region Facebook page listed first, and then the different parishes in the region and the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes. I’ve sorted it by the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes, and I was surprised to see that my home parish is not at the top of the list.

Digital Competency

Recently, I’ve been getting into various discussions about the article, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M Twenge. Below is an email that I wrote to some of my coworkers about this subject.

As some of you may know, I’ve been published in the Journal of Group Analytics, and spoken at the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the Association of Internet Researchers, and at NACHC conferences about social media. I also speak each year with the Psych Post Docs about social media.

I have a very different view of the effects of digital communications and find the Atlantic article highly flawed.

I would start off by referring people to the article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants By Marc Prensky.

The article was written back in 2001 and has some significant flaws, particularly in too closely equating age with digital orientation, but it presents a key idea. We are at a unique time in human history where many of us, particularly older folks, have been brought up in a pre-digital or analog world. Many of us have learned to get by in a digital world, but we still keep many of our old analog ways. We are, in a sense digital immigrants. Others have been brought up in a digital world and are digital natives. Personally, I identify as a digital aborigine, but that’s a different topic.

It is worth noting this unique time is not without parallels. A good parallel was the years after the Guttenberg printing press. Back then, there was concern expressed about people who spent too much time reading. A famous novel from 1605 talks about a person who read too much, Don Quixote:

You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.

It was part of the writing of the era when people talked about those who spend too much time reading, much like how people talk about those who spend too much time online today.

In health care, we are called to be culturally competent. I would suggest that the Twenge article is an example of cultural incompetence by a digital immigrant talking negatively about a culture not her own and that her conclusions are based on her biases.

Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing that teens today tend to communicate more via computer mediated communications than face to face? Some of this may reflect our biases. Personally, for many reasons, I’m glad to see our culture become less of an automobile dominated culture and teens being less eager to learn to drive. I’m also not sure that delayed sexual activity is such a bad thing.

The concern about depression and loneliness is a much more important issue, but I would ask if the author is confusing causes and effects. Are the people that are online most often lonely because they are online, or are they online because they are lonely? If it is the later, then perhaps online interaction is actually beneficial. There is a lot of research on how online interaction can be a gateway to help isolated people become less isolated, to help people develop social skills online that they can then use in face to face interaction. As an aside, some of my favorite work on this has related to people on the autism spectrum manage their communications more effectively and as a result develop better face to face skills.

I do find it interesting to note that the previous article by Ms Twenge in Atlantic is
Young People Are Happier Than They Used to Be: But mature adults aren’t faring as well.
Perhaps Smartphones haven’t destroyed a generation, perhaps they are helping save it.

Perhaps related to this, recently, the New York Time re-ran an article from 2012 about loneliness:
Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?

It seems as if there are some other more important issues to be addressed. Cyberbullying is an important issue that doesn’t really get proper consideration in the article. More importantly is the issue that teens today, as they are forming their identities, need to form identities in both the physical analog world and in the virtual digital world. It is much more difficult. At the same time, they do not have as many people to go to help them with their digital identities, because their elders are digital immigrants. We all need to become better at helping people whose lives are increasingly digital, without being judgmental about how much better things were when we were younger.

I hope you read the article in the Atlantic. I hope you read Prensky’s article, as well as the two articles about happiness and loneliness. Once you have read then, I hope you’ll go back and re-read Twenge’s article and ask yourself where the causes are, where the effects are, and how your biases about digital communications might be shaping you reactions.

I particularly encourage this for any behavioral health providers that are interested in what it might me to be digitally culturally competent.

Thankful Ignatian Poetry Online

Last March, I attended a workshop on pastoral care at Fordham University. It was the beginning of Lent and I spent a little time praying in the chapel before the workshop started. I picked up some literature about the Ignatian Daily Examen and thought about how I might work aspects of it into my prayer life.

In May, I went to a poetry conference at Yale Divinity School, where there was additional discussions about Ignatian spirituality, including references to the Daily Examen. It struck me. I should write my reflections from a Daily Examen as poems.

So I started two months ago. My goal was to put up a new post every evening. Over time, the poems have become shorter fragments. I haven’t always managed to polish and post them in the evening and at times, I’ve posted several at once after the fact.

I’ve also thought of this practice as part of other goals. Bringing poetry and gratitude into the daily discourse online. At times friends of mine have participated in gratitude challenges. Some post regularly about Thankful Thursdays. Others post wonderful poems about the stuff of their daily lives. It seems like these sort of posts are especially important in these current days.

I’m not sure what I will do with the Daily Examen posts I have put up. Some I may further polish into better, more complete poems. Some might be combined with others for some sort of longer poem.

I’m not sure yet. However, I invite all of you to join me in a poetic Daily Examen. A good card that is helpful in thinking about the Daily Examen can be found on the Ignatian Spirituality website.

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