Microsoft Research Connections Blog
Next at Microsoft
Social Media Collective
Windows on Theory
Posted by George Thomas Jr.
Microsoft researcher Nancy Baym
Whether technology will diminish the intimacy of interpersonal relationships or in some way negatively impact humanity is an age-old concern. Opinions on the matter are as robust as the technological leaps occurring ever more rapidly in our history.
But opinion can't trump research. It's been just five years since Microsoft's Nancy Baym (@nancybaym) published her research on the subject in Personal Connections in the Digital Age, but much has changed since then -- not just technology, but how we use it -- leading Baym to build upon her initial research and publish a second edition of Personal Connections released this week.
Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, says Baym's "brilliant book explodes myths and challenges stereotypes," and Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science cites Baym's optimism, "showing how we may yet build new, perhaps better, personal connections in the digital age."
Baym long has been at the forefront of researching this confluence of modern society and technology. In 1999, she co-founded the Association of Internet Researchers and her recent research on musicians' perspectives on audience interaction and relationship led her to host the first Music Tech Fest in the United States. That research led to the formation this year of The Music Technology Research Network.
Even the selfie phenomenon is not beyond Baym's purview. Last week she published a co-edited collection of largest-to-date compendium of selfie research in the International Journal of Communication (Vol. 9, 2015) that includes two articles she co-authored, Introduction ~ What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon and The Selfie of the Year of the Selfie: Reflections on a Media Scandal.
In the following Q&A, Baym discusses what's new in the second edition, the predictability and unpredictability of technology and how we use it, and where her research is headed -- at least as far as she can predict.
It's been just five years since Personal Connections in the Digital Age was published. What has changed that necessitated a second edition so soon? This is a book about how people communicate with each other in their daily lives. The first edition went to press in 2009. Since then the smart phone and apps have become ubiquitous. There is much more photo sharing through apps like Instagram and Snapchat, as well as through Facebook which, like Twitter, has redesigned itself to foreground images. These media are playing roles in social movements that they weren't yet in 2009 – think of #ArabSpring or #Occupy. With so many more people using social media, the pressures around balancing different audiences and presenting one's self have changed. Interacting with friends and family through the Internet and apps has become so normalized that some of the conversation had already shifted since the first edition. In addition to incorporating the other new research I've done since writing the first edition, this version incorporates almost 150 articles and books that have been published in the last five years. It's been a busy time in this field.
What do you hope to achieve by releasing a second edition? A book like this inevitably comes to feel dated relatively quickly because apps and sites arise and burn out almost daily. So one goal was just to give it a refresh that will make it fit readers' present a little better. But more deeply, the goal, as with the first edition, is to bring together the large bodies of work on how communication technologies are understood and integrated into everyday lives and with what consequences. This is a topic that people really care about and have strong thoughts about. But they often don't realize that there is a great deal of empirical work that has evidence about these things. In the second edition in particular, I wanted to show that research done before social networking sites existed still has relevance. We don't need to invent the conceptual and empirical wheels anew with each new medium.
See also: Microsoft's Social Computing research group
Baym's 2nd edition of Personal Connections in the Digital Age incorporates new research findings.
It's easier than ever to create and maintain relationships online, but are we on a road toward losing the intimacy of personal connections? This is exactly the kind of question this book speaks to. My short answer is no. My own research shows, for instance, that the more intimate the relationship, the more media people use to communicate. One thing I discuss in the book is how the fear of losing close connection, or of creating the wrong kinds of connection, is really old, far pre-dating the Internet. People often think of digital and face-to-face communication as a zero-sum game, but most of the evidence indicates that, at least in close relationships, they are additive. That is not to say there are no challenges or problems. Norms for appropriate use are still evolving and people disagree on what is acceptable. People have to figure out what will work for them in their relationships. Technology use can itself be a source of conflict.
Are the online communities of today, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, significantly different from the Usenet groups of the early days of the Internet, and are they affecting our interaction any differently? There are several significant differences. Facebook and LinkedIn are individualized social networks where each person has a different set of connections from everyone else. They are organized around and by individuals, usually people known face-to-face. Earlier online communities were topically organized, and everyone had access to the same group of people and messages. Some other important differences are that Facebook and LinkedIn are for-profit companies, whereas earlier online communities were often public. In addition, the new generation of network sites are algorithmically filtered, so people do not know what they are missing and who their messages are reaching, let alone what mechanisms determine what they do and don't see.
New technologies like Skype Translator are removing communication barriers, but does that make it easier to predict in what ways they'll transform society? It's important to remember that technologies are only one source of influence on societal outcomes. Technologies are always adapted and used in innovative and unexpected ways once they are in the hands of individuals and groups. The history of communication technologies is a history of innovations being used for purposes other than what their inventors and early investors intended. What can be safely predicted is that optimistic hopes for what the technology can do (Bring people together! Transcend barriers! Reduce violence and hatred!) will be balanced by dystopian fears about what it will do (Dehumanize! Destroy relationships! Polarize!) and that the truth will be a messy middle ground of different people using technologies under different circumstances in different ways with different consequences.
Do we have any reason to fear that new technologies will adversely affect our humanity? This question seems to be as old as technology itself. Ancient Greeks were concerned about the adverse effects of the alphabet. Humanity is flawed, and new technologies can exacerbate as well as ameliorate some of those flaws. What I take from the fact that after millennia we are still posing this question is that humans always feel that our humanity is threatened, that we deeply believe it is worth holding on to and that it's a constant struggle. I think the question is whether we will let new technologies adversely affect our humanity. That is a collective choice that comes down to both the things we make and what uses of those things we engage in and accept.
How has what you've learned thus far influenced what you're researching now? I've been following the ways that new technologies blur boundaries and disrupt social norms for two decades. In that time communicating through computers has gone from weird to completely mundane. Now we can start to understand what happens when using these media becomes expected in multiple facets of life. How do our professional and personal identities and relationships get distinguished or blurred? I've been looking at how musicians build quasi-interpersonal relationships with their audiences as a model for thinking through contemporary tensions around social and economic relationships and how social media reconfigure those boundaries.
Baym is a principal researcher in Microsoft's research lab in Cambridge, Mass., and a visiting professor of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Learn more about her work and see her research videos on the Microsoft Research website.