Desocialisation: virtual legend or new form of social interaction?

Les liaisons numériques

BOOK REVIEW  by Cédric COUSSEAU  •  Published 12.01.2011  •  Updated 12.01.2011
 Is the personal computer phenomenon cutting people off from social existence? No, says Antoni A. Casilli in Les liaisons numériques (‘digital links’); it is simply creating new forms of social interaction, and in certain cases, strengthening bonds of friendship.

Title: Les liaisons numériques

Subhead: Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ?

Author(s): Antonio A. Casili

Editor(s): Seuil

Release Date: 01.09.2010


 In Les liaisons numériques, Antonio A. Casilli attacks the myth that all Internet users are living their lives alone in front of a computer screen and that the Internet is removing the human bonds that connected them to their friends and loved ones. It may indeed be true that these people find themselves further detached from society every day due to the parallel virtual life they are constructing for themselves online – a life without soul or real interaction. Yet he still believes that the Internet is not the all-consuming machine we are often led to believe it is.
The first reason for this is that Internet users are not rejecting real life. It is not a question of choosing between a life based in reality (“IRL” for “in real life”) and a life on the net, with one necessarily being detrimental to the other; in fact, they live both lives at the same time. The majority of Internet users primarily use networks connected to their work or student relationships. These social links are therefore based on ones already established in a real social sphere. In the same way, people are usually friends in real life before becoming friends on Facebook.
The author comes back to this notion of friendship in the chapter entitled “My Facebook friend isn’t actually my friend”. The meaning of friendship, and of the word “friend” in particular, has undergone changes due to the spread of online social networks. It seems that virtual friendship, and “Facebook friends”, are not a direct counterpart to real-life friendship.
“Digital communication should be considered in the same way as telephone calls or letters – means that have articulated and complemented face-to-face communication for a long time. […] Online communication tools are not replacing direct interaction. Rather, in the same way as these other longstanding means of communication, they simply add to this and in fact increase the total amount of contact”.

New bonds

The Web also creates stronger bonds between people who are otherwise only loosely connected through others. A tool such as Facebook allows the tenuous bonds of our real-life relationships to be strengthened and maintained. These can reveal themselves to be vital in certain moments such as, for example, when one is looking for a job or during difficult periods, such as illness.
To illustrate this point, the author looks at a study that shows how the use of such Internet networks by men suffering from prostate cancer was able to improve their “quality of life”, as they had access to testimonials, advice and comfort from other online sufferers and survivors.
Antonio A. Casilli continues on the subject by quoting the thesis of Mark Granovetter[+] NoteMark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties", American Journal of Sociology, volume 78, n°6, 1973 .X [1], a sociologist at Stanford University, who believes that “it’s not through turning to our loved ones and close friends, with whom we share such intense ties that they act as a shield to exterior influence and change, that we will maximise our chances of experiencing something new. It is instead through more superficial relationships or ‘friends of friends’ that we will be able to expand our acquaintances and discover new possibilities”.  
Another theory looks at the fact that, according to Facebook statistics, an Internet user has an average of 130 friends online, which is not far from the figure of 150 that Robin Dumbar claimed to be the number of friendships the human brain is capable of maintaining. This presents an evident example of recreating real life social interaction online – although it is firstly necessary to distinguish between public personalities, who have thousands of friends or followers on Twitter, and other individuals. The former does not really have this number of true online friendship connections, but rather, a means of communication with the anonymous masses.
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Recreating a life and friendships online

 The author does admit that Facebook is a very particular network that gives one the opportunity to fabricate a life scenario, however[+] NoteRegarding this, see French video « À quoi ressemble une vie entière sur Facebook ? »(What does an entire life look like on Facebook?) by Maxime Luère.X [2] and to reinvent oneself completely, even lying in order to create an ideal profile.
But Facebook monitoring is also carried out by “friends”, and someone who attempts to create a fake life for themselves or who has a suspiciously large number of online friends risks being excluded from online socialising. The author also points out that online friendship is not spontaneous but rather necessitates a request being made that will then be validated or not by the other person. This leads to “unidirectional” friendships in which a user may have a large number of friends without being a friend to anyone else.

The other risk lies in using Facebook to “stalk” those with whom you have become online friends. “In an off-line context, this kind of behaviour would almost certainly destroy the bonds of trust between friends. However, on these online social networks, this behaviour can even end up strengthening them […]. It is also not uncommon to see friendships created online with the sole purpose of targeting someone, harassing them with inappropriate comments, verbally abusing them or even instigating embarrassing situations for them by publishing private photos”. It is interesting to note here that in a recent study, almost 40% of young Americans claimed to be harassed or mistreated on the Internet.

Antonio A. Casilli brings up the case of otakus, the “reclusive obsessives” of Japanese society who have represented the archetypal geek since the eighties, cutting themselves off from the outside world to spend day and night playing online. Casilli recognises their obsession more in terms of a desire for “simulation of human relationships” in the sense that web-based interaction can be seen as “training, or even a kind of therapy, to help these people surmount their phobia […]. Their online life can give them the opportunity to practise social skills, increase their self-confidence and in turn maximise their chances of creating real meaningful relationships”.
The main aim of Antonio A. Casilli’s essay is therefore to go beyond easy clichés, dig deeper and unravel negative connotations to expose the complex details of online socialising. He does not ignore nuance, and knows that computers and the Internet are sources of addiction. His objective here is to show that PCs have not only entered into our homes, but also into other, less tangible areas of our lives. It is certainly a rather original take on this subject.

Translated by Leah Williams
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Book title: Les liaisons numériques
Subhead:  Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ?
Author(s): Antonio A. Casili
Editor(s): Seuil
Release Date: 01/09/2010
N° ISBN: 202098637X
Number of pages: 334 pages
Suggested price: 20 €

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