By Lucy Marks
American social psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski, author of Untangling the Web, has spent a decade probing the effects of the web on society. She spoke with technology journalist, author and radio presenter Marc Fennell about our reaction to the systematic integration of the Internet into our lives.
Dr Krotoski described the web as a social and psychological phenomenon and questioned whether it is dissolving community or simply – or maybe not so simply – changing the spectrum of interpersonal relationships at the Sydney Writers’ Festival session called, appropriately, Untangling the Web.
She said aspects of life, such as identity, are not slipping out of our control but are, rather, “under negotiation”. She said she wonders what a replication of ourselves in the virtual world does for our co-dependent relationship with the web.
Dr Krotoski explained how the evolution of the web has effected her personally. When she first encountered the Internet, she said she was “astonished by the new realm” that was available at the touch of her fingers.
She said the most significant shift in “headspace” came with the arrival of the smart phone, a device that created an interconnectivity with people and the internet wherever people were; she described it as a concept and reality that was “delightful and overwhelming”.
Marc Fennell raised one of the perennial questions of change: has our attention span changed with a wealth of instantaneous information available at our fingertips?
Dr Krotoski said distraction is imminent and certain with so many avenues to be diverted to online, but this is not new or a result of the Internet. She said we have always found ways to procrastinate and amuse ourselves only now it is through a different medium.
Self-Control, a software program designed to self-restrict access to websites, such as Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit that are entertaining distractions, is a temporary solution to an “endemic problem”, she said.
Almost like a self-exclusion ban for alcoholics or problem gamblers, self-confessed Internet addicts can now take control and self-prescribe a temporary cyber patch.
Marc Fennell asked Dr Krotoski whether people ever be ”digitally still”, to quote a term from her book. While technology is inextricably linked different technologies, people are taking “digital detox weeks”, or time out, she said.
Dr Krotoski said people are restricting the idea of community being ” “place-based” where face-to-face contact is comfortable and familiar, but she assured the audience that being involved in online communities is about group belonging.
The rapport among “conceptual communities” and “meetings of the minds” can be just as fulfilling as involvement with physical communities, she said.
An older woman in the audience mentioned that she had a blog but said she wasn’t sure why she had it; she said she thought it had something to do with “not wanting to be left behind”. She drew a comparison between the social disadvantages of not being tech-savvy in today’s context, and the social divide of being not literate 50 or100 years ago.
Dr Krotoski addressed the common worry that aspects of our lives are slipping out of our control. She said that elements such as family, youth, death, sex, were unyielding, but there are two aspects that are under negotiation.Those two aspects are “identity” and “search”.
Dr Krotoski found that young people gravitate towards platforms such as Tumblr because, while being an avenue for social expression, it is a place where an anonymous identity can be created, accentuated and broadcast without affiliation to an offline identity.
Marc Fennell commented that this is in stark contrast to Facebook which is directly connected to identity, with a “bigger footprint created around photos and names”.
There was an objection to this observation by audience member Jessica Thompson who said Facebook can be just an anonymous. Everyone has “creative control, and is a curatorial agent of their online identity”, Jessica said.
Dr Krotoski’s comment that privacy hasn’t changed despite the concept of Google as a “data mining company”, prompted a discussion of another concept under negotiation, the concept of “search”.
Search is a concept focused on the inability of online identities and information to disappear. Dr Krotoski said it is important psychologically and socially to allow information that is associated with individual identities to disappear.