The Winter of Our Disconnect: Chapter 6


“The information paradox–that the more data we have, the stupider we become–has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

I took a Media and Culture class a few years ago (I’ve mentioned it here before, including a showcase of my final project) that completely opened my eyes to major media shifts over the years. I don’t know why, but I had never really thought about it before. From one-to-one and one-to-few, to one-to-many, to many-to-many… I had never really considered how a networked communication structure opened up so very many lines of conversation. It just… happened.

I had email and AIM relatively early and used both frequently, but I remember when I first heard about Facebook, the networking holy grail and game-changing way for young people to interact (let’s pause for a second and mourn my apparent passing from that category, as noted by my use of the term “young people”. Woooow, Abby.) A boy I was pining for asked if I had heard of it. “You haven’t heard of Facebook?!” he asked incredulously. Yeah, I get it. I’m out of the loop. Please, continue… “I’ll send you and invite. Just wait; you’ll see. It’s awesome.”

Fast forward a few years, and after Facebook and I have had some ups and downs in our one-sided and occasionally obsessive relationship, I now use it as free, scrolly entertainment between tasks. And intermittent vacation picture posts. And a few conversations with long-lost or long-distance friends.

But I digress. Maushart spends this chapter alternating anecdotes about her children’s connections and modern research on the subject. The theme is the similar to one of Carr’s that I noted in this post: our transformation into “pancake people” who are spread wide and thin (the term first used by Richard Foreman). We seem to be trading connection depth for connection breadth. But the strange thing is that most of the people in our “network” are not in our actual network. Let me explain. An Oxford University anthropologist named Robin Dunbar found that our capacity for a circle of “friends” is about 150. This includes all levels of friendship, and applies to other primates, too. Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s resident sociologist (at least at the time this book was written), found that our Facebook core network tends to be smaller still. Though an average user might have about 120 friends, he or she only communicates with about 7. And for users with more friends, such as 500, they tend to only interact with about 16. But we still push out pictures, articles, likes, and comments to our circle of acquaintances. And the News Feed structure continues to widen the circle of what we see, like friends of friends’ activity.

I have a few friends who’ve dropped their accounts and don’t seem to miss them much. One such friend finally rationalized that any true friendships could (and would) be maintained offline, and everyone else fell off the radar. I’ve dreamed about cutting the social cord myself, and about the time I would get back each day, but in the end I haven’t done it. I guess I always come back to this: is it better to completely disengage, or to knowingly participate while exercising some self-control and self-awareness?

For me, I always end up at the latter. Whether it’s because I’m in the advertising field and feel like I should be constantly immersed in social media, or because I’m a small business owner who needs all the leverage she can get, or simply because I’m a glutton for spying on people’s lives… I’m not sure. All I know is I have a couple notifications and messages to go attend to.