NYT's Bill Keller fires back at Twittersphere
After a mostly one-way Twitter spat Wednesday with @techsoc and others regarding the depth of social media, NYTimes executive editor Bill Keller defended his claims about Twitter in the form of a rather long comment on @techsoc's blog, technosociology.org
Keller left the '-h' off @techsoc's handle initially, but swiftly corrected the mistake.
I"m sorry to be so slow -- at least by Twitter standards -- in getting
back to you. I thought before I responded I would try to read some of
the research you sent my way. Having spent a couple of hours immersed in
the material, I"ll give you my non-scientist"s response. But first,
pause for a second to review the narrative of the past day, because it
illustrates a point I"ve made on several occasions about Twitter -- which
I love, but don"t worship uncritically.
So, Anthony DeRosa Tweets a link to an interview in which I make a
comment about Facebook. You send out a Tweet chiding me on the grounds
that my remark is refuted by evidence. I chide you back for not linking
to any of the evidence you have in mind. You Tweet links to a mountain
of social science. The Twittersphere -- before I can respond to you, and I
think I can safely say without actually reading the voluminous science
you have provided -- applauds you for nailing me. Does this fit your
definition of an enlightening discussion? Or is it more like fans at a
sporting event hooting for their favorite players? Twitter is good for
many things, but I"m not convinced it"s an ideal platform for serious
Just to review, my remark that provoked your response was: "The time you
spend keeping up with your 200 Facebook friends is time you are not
getting to know someone really well in person." This is, of course, a
difficult statement to challenge. The time you spend doing one thing is,
by definition, time you are not spending doing something else. But you
clearly did not mean to challenge the literal truth of my remark. As
best I can tell, you where challenging what you perceived to be my
implication: that Facebook is an impediment to friendship.
Was that my implication? Not really. What I"ve actually said about
Facebook -- in a column, a blog discussion with Nick Bilton, the
interview with DeRosa and elsewhere -- can be summed up this way: Social
media, like all new things, come with benefits and costs. The benefits
are abundant and may well outweigh the costs, but users of new
technology should not shy away from discussing the tradeoffs. My sense
of Facebook, not based on research but based on some experience and
observation, is that for some people Facebook creates a kind of
friendship that is more superficial than the kind that grows out of
hours spent together in one another"s company. Of course, social media
is a way to keep in touch with real friends and expand your network of
more casual, less intimate relationships. But it also makes it possible
to feel like you have a meaningful social life when, in reality, you are
missing something. I did not offer this as a scientific fact but as an
observation and a concern.
The studies you sent me had a lot of interesting material, but they did
not address my concern. For starters, many of them predate the explosion
of social media. A handful are as recent as 2010, but mostly they
reference work done in 2006, 2004, 2002, even 1997. They are about "the
Internet," or email, or mobile phone use.
More important, these studies mostly define friendship as "network size." Typical was this argument from Wang and Wellman:
"Friendship is still abundant. In 2002 and 2007, American adults had on
average about 10 friends whom they met or spoke with at least weekly,
with a few additional virtual friends and migratory friends. Despite the
scholarly cautions and media panics, our data suggest that almost
everyone has social ties whom they contact on a regular basis. People"s
friendship network sizes vary depending on their Internet use or nonuse.
In general, Internet users do not have fewer offline friends than do
nonusers, as the panic- stricken media have feared."
Likewise the Hampton/Sessions 2008 study of "Core Networks, Social
Isolation, and New Media" finds no correlation between Internet and
mobile phone use and "social isolation" (defined as people who can"t
name anyone "with whom you discussed matters that are important to
you.") They report that people who spend time online have more contacts
with such people.
Likewise the Boase 2006 study "The Strength of Internet Ties" -- which
looked both at the number of contacts and the regularity of contacts.
The number and diversity of your friends is not insignificant, but it"s
not relevant to my point, which concerns the quality of friendships, not
the quantity. I"ve never questioned that social media are excellent for
reach. I have suggested that in many cases they are not conducive to
So, I"m happy that my columns and comments have provoked interest and
aroused argument. I LIKE argument. But you"re arguing with a point I
And now I have to go earn a pay check.
For the most part, healthy discourse emerges as @techsoc acknowledges the complexity and merits of Keller's response.
- "Debate is good," seems to be the consensus on Twitter.
Others still aren't buying Keller's assertion that online and offline relationships compete with each other.
- @techsoc questions whether online networks can displace personal interaction.
Keller decides to re-enter the fray, posting an article published by the Times back in 2004 about the desocializing effects of the internet.
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