Will Twitter Make Us Immoral? Probably Not, But What Will it Make Us?
As the latest sloppy headlines would have it, “twitter makes you coarse and unsympathetic.” Of course, the scientists themselves are disputing those editorial leaps of logic. But the issue is intriguing regardless: there’s no question that radical changes in the way people socialize are going to have an affect on human psychology, particularly developmental psychology. So where’s it all going?
At least in this particular line of research, the basic idea is that developing true empathy, the basis for compassion and moral instincts, requires long-form social interactions and attention. Local TV news snippets regarding violence, disaster may not measure up when it comes to helping children and teenagers develop their moral sense, or other deeper forms of empathetic connection, like admiration. That’s certainly troubling in isolation.
But the key here is realizing that short-form socializing like twitter isn’t truly “short form” when it comes to its overall role in people’s social lives. 140 characters may not be enough to convey real hurt or passion, but that misses the point entirely: most people are producing and consuming hordes of twitters every day. And just as sentences make up paragraphs, and paragraphs make up stories, it’s the ongoing interactions that make up people’s internet lives, not simply the sorts of disjointed snippets that this research covers. Interactive social tools like twitter make people more connected to other people, more involved and invested in each other’s tragedies and triumphs, not less.
And I suspect that things like twitter are only the beginning in any case. In the not too distant future, the next generation is going to be growing up with always-on mobile devices that allow them to talk to virtually anyone, anywhen, text or audio or even video, without the archaic practice of dialing a cell number. Your entire social network right there with you in whatever room they happen to be in, every waking hour. Your IM-style “buddy list” wired directly into every aspect of your life. I don’t know if the prospect is scary or wondrous, but I think it’s almost inevitable.
And so, if anything, what we have to worry about are not children growing up in the absence of deep social interactions, but children who are quite literally never alone, never disconnected from news, friends, and endless information. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine what impact that is going to have on people’s personalities, or even their very sense of self, when the voices in their earpieces are as loud and constant as the voices in their own head.