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Internet and Identity

Dream Team, Author
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Introduction to Thompson and Carr

Both Nicholas Carr and Clive Thompson are in agreement that the use of internet technology and social media affect the way we think. While Nicholas Carr argues that we are “sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet”, Thompson argues that there are enormous benefits that come from social interaction via the Internet. He attests that social media gives users new ways to learn, talk, and share information leading to greater memory retention and the ability to remain connected to people all over the world. While I agree with Thompson that social media allows us to stay connected to friends near or far, the invention of the Facebook Like button illustrates Carr’s argument because it threatens our engagement with information online and in real life. An investigation of Carr and Thompson’s arguments is needed before one can decide if internet technology and social media is ultimately good or bad. We will first investigate Thompson’s ideas, and they are illustrated most effectively in a concept we all know as the Facebook Newsfeed. 

In 2006, Mark Zuckerberg changed the way Facebook worked by creating the Newsfeed. Before the Newsfeed existed, Facebook users had to visit their friends’ pages every day to keep up with their likes, dislikes, status updates, and major news such as a change in relationship status or a decision to attend a college or decision to accept a job offer. Before the Newsfeed, it may have been hours, days, or weeks before a person would discover major news their friends had posted, causing us to feel disconnected from the people we desire to feel connected to when we sign up for an account on Facebook. 

As a modern Facebook user, I use the word modern to say that I joined Facebook after the Newsfeed had been implemented; it’s very hard to imagine what Facebook would be like without it. It would take hours to search through each of my 300+ friend’s pages to keep up with their changing status updates, and I don’t have time in my day to do that now. Often times, I find myself browsing through the Newsfeed when I am bored or when I am in class listening to a lecture because I am constantly craving new information to keep up with what my friends near or far are doing when I am not with them. It’s embarrassing when one is in a group and someone says, “Did you see what so and so posted on Facebook?” and another says, “Oh, yeah! I can’t believe that happened”, and there is one person who has no idea what the others in the group are talking about. That person may feel uninformed, insignificant, and disconnected from the group they are trying to belong to. Similarly this is how one would feel if they had to search through their friends pages manually, only coming across new information every seventh or eighth friend out of 300. The Newsfeed allows me to get all the information I crave in a fraction of the amount of time it would take me to search through all of my friends’ pages and as a result, I feel connected to not only those friends but to society as a whole. 

In Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think, Thompson gives a name to this constant desire to know what our friends are up to at every single minute of the day. Thompson calls it ambient awareness. “Ambient awareness is almost like being in the same room as someone and picking up on his mood and thoughts by the stray signals he gives off. You create a picture of someone else’s internal state gradually, almost unconsciously, by assembling many small observations” (Thompson, 210). The small observations Thompson refers to are the short status updates our friends post in the newsfeed. Thompson argues that overtime, these short status updates culminate into our views or ideas about that specific friend and we can essentially get inside their heads to know how they think and how they feel. Shifting the perspective, the short status updates that we post for others to see, gives our viewers (friends) an either accurate or inaccurate representation of our true identity. What is interesting to note is that this virtual identity may conflict with our true identity which is worth exploring later in this paper. Click here to read an interview with Clive Thompson as he further elaborates on the concept he calls ambient awareness. 

A lot of times when one browses through their Newsfeed, they don’t read the status completely; they just like it because the post already has a lot of likes and they want to involve themselves in that post to receive the latest updates to that post. Carr identifies the cause for this example in his book The Shallows when he says, “the natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible (Carr, 63).” Carr says the reason we can’t and don’t involve ourselves in deep readings of text is because our brains are distracted, and craving new information to stimulate our senses. 

Not only is Carr arguing that we can’t engage ourselves in deep readings of books or long texts, but he is also arguing that shallow reading makes for shallow minds and shallow relationships. The overuse of the “like” button threatens our engagement with information online but also how we communicate in real life. When we write a comment in response to a status, we are required to actually think about why we feel the need to respond to an image or message. Liking a post allows us to simply bypass this thought process. Thus our interactions on Facebook become superficial and less meaningful and reiterate the ideas Carr discusses in his book The Shallows.  The video below illustrates Carr's argument that social media changes the way we think for the worse.  

The trend toward clicking the “like” button extends far beyond Facebook. Youtube, StumbleUpon, Amazon, and even Google have adopted some form of a “like” button for others to show their approval in social media settings. This is worrying because “likes” are not reflective of what real conversations are like. Real-life interactions and communication involve doing more than just show a thumbs-up of approval. In real-life situations, or face to face communication, we must articulate our feelings and provide reasons to support our ideas. Carr would argue that current generations growing up with “like” culture will struggle to articulate their ideas to others now and in the future. They will communicate using short phrases such as “I like it” and “I approve” because that is how they are used to communicating and sharing information in a virtual reality. 

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