Young people in a line enjoying content on their mobile devices

Debate: For and against social networking - is social media technology making us more antisocial?

Communicating with other people is easier than ever, but is greater connection fuelling antisocial instincts?

For: Social networking technology is making us more antisocial

By Chris Edwards

In Mike Leigh's film 'Naked', Johnny is a near-sociopathic loser who doesn't interact with people so much as harangue them with bizarre theories on everything from barcodes to the meaninglessness of time. In hiding from a crime committed in Manchester, he tours London looking for lost souls to whom he can feel superior. Made in 1993, the year before the World Wide Web went mainstream, we could feel reassured that Johnny was a rarity. You would have to be very unlucky to run into someone like him on a bus or even in the pub.

But, thanks to the Web, an entire race of Johnnies has appeared, expounding with considerable hostility why their views on 9/11, the New World Order and life in general are hugely superior to anyone else's. Their opponents are shills, trolls or fools, or possibly all three.

Now, you can argue that the Internet has done much to bring people together. At the same time, it has made it easier for society to split into a huge number of in-groups who wage wars of words on the other.

Commenters on blogs or news articles do not just claim the author is wrong, but that they are a waste of skin that should die.

The Internet cartoon character John 'Gabe' Gabriel has a theory for it. It's the Greater Internet Fu... I'm sorry, I can't finish the name because it's not the sort of thing that you want to repeat in polite society. In summary, using just a blackboard sketch, Gabriel argues that there are two components to becoming an online sociopath: anonymity and an audience.

Almost a decade before Gabriel's summary made its way onto the Penny Arcade website, researcher Judith Donath analysed behaviour on Usenet, a precursor to today's Web-based 'fora'. Trolling - deliberately riling other users - had become a popular pastime and Donath set out to discover why. It's not just names that online discourse lacks, she found: "Many of the basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent.

Anyone who has had the tone in one of their emails misread will understand the problem. It's hard to convey the subtlety of face-to-face or telephone interaction using the most common form of online discourse: text. People use emoticons but they can convey an alternative, almost sinister meaning if the recipient reads it that way. Offence is not just easily given on the Internet; it's taken all too easily as well.

The exaggerated nature of online discourse, in which opening salvos in an exchange are often unnecessarily hostile, is arguably a consequence of Donath's observation of a lack of additional body language or other social cues. It might also be compensation for a lack of that stimulation to the brain.

Pioneering media researcher Marshall McLuhan wrote about the numbing effect of technology's ability to extend our bodies. It's fair to say that some of McLuhan's concepts do get a little muddled in his writing. He considered TV a 'hot medium' - one that demanded active involvement from the viewer - in contrast's to radio's status of a 'cool medium'. From today's perspective this seems at best an idiosyncratic notion if not just plain wrong. The TV doesn't get called the idiot box for nothing.

In 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' - a book that predates the Web by 30 years - McLuhan thought the extensions to the self that technological gadgets provide allow people to separate from themselves. Like Narcissus, they become blind to the mirror that reality provides. Not only that, the increase in stimulation from these new external senses is beyond what the body can handle. "Shock induces a generalised numbness or an increased threshold to all types of perception. The victim seems immune to pain or sense."

Technology may help redress the balance and allow people to convey and read the subtle social signals we learn through real-world interactions. But as we have become more connected we have become disconnected from ourselves and each other.

Against:Social networking technology is not making us more antisocial

By Andy Pye

Advances in technology have been overwhelmingly beneficial for mankind. From the first tools honed out of flint by prehistoric man, to the latest cures for cancer, every innovation has made our lives that bit easier, longer, more comfortable. And yet, almost inevitably, each new idea comes with a "dark side". In building his Rocket, George Stephenson would not have envisaged that trains might one day be the implement of choice for stressed financiers contemplating suicide. In his work with electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday would not have been concerned with the use of electricity in torturing dissidents and political prisoners.

The World Wide Web was 20 years old last year, and yet its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, would not have been held back by the concern that it could enable would-be terrorists to discover recipes for making fertiliser bombs, nor be a communications mechanism for paedophiles.

None of these problems would be proposed as a reason for stockpiling the idea. The benefits to mankind still outweigh the disadvantages. And so it is with social networking - a technology born out of modern communications that enables the sharing of information in an efficient manner with like-minded people.

As with all the technologies described above, it too can be abused. It is important to recognise how this happens, and how to build effective defences, but without shackling its potential with a metaphorical red flag, as Luddites once attempted to do with the motor car.

Carrying out risk assessments, to help identify potential problem areas, and build up a strategy for dealing with them, should be part of every development. If a mobile phone has potential for detonating improvised explosive devices, then the security forces need to have the capability to switch off the network when a risk is identified. This may, indeed, have happened already, in the recent 7/7 attacks in London.

Berners-Lee is one of the pioneer voices in favour of "net neutrality" and says that ISPs should supply "connectivity with no strings attached", and should neither control nor monitor customers' browsing activities without consent. He advocates the idea that net neutrality is a kind of human network rights.

There is no doubt that social networking was abused during the recent rioting in England's major cities. It enabled them to regroup faster than police forces were able to anticipate. These early concerns, however, can be mitigated by infiltrating groups, encouraging other members of the community to shop the yob element within, and by selectively disabling the social network at times of high risk.

Big sticks have to be part of the process. The higher the deterrent, the less likely it is that criminals will re-offend. The most effective way of emptying jails is to increase sentences. I recently spent some time in Kazakhstan, where robust policing is the norm. One method is to drive criminals 20km into the Steppe and leave them to walk home alone.

As the England cricket team reaches the exalted number one position in the world, the sport has worked tirelessly at grass roots level to introduce the sport - and the standards of social behaviour that it embraces - to youngsters. Holiday courses and training sessions for youngsters have never been fuller. 

And the social networks - those same ones accused of being responsible for inciting rioting - are buzzing with youngsters sharing their experiences. Team selections are now posted on Facebook, rather than on the club noticeboard. The Kent Cricket Board has just appointed its first social networking officer.

The use of social networking as an enabler for criminals is a symptom of problems in our society, not the problem in itself. And just as other technological advances in our society, it should be encouraged to flourish as a force for good, while tackling the small minority of users who wish to use it for undesirable reasons.

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