In Defense of the Active Social Voice

At the close of last week's ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle argued that mobile devices have a way of taking people out of a real-life moment and hurting human interaction. But what about the real-life human interaction that happens on our phones and laptops?

I’ve attended and covered enough ASAE conferences at this point—whether Annual Meetings or smaller shindigs like Great Ideas or the Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference—that I feel like I have a good lay of the land.

And I’ll be the first to admit that—as anyone who saw me speak during a session at the 2014 edition of Great Ideas might agree—I’m not always the best with conversing about things on a face-to-face level. That’s not self-deprecation on my part; rather, it’s an honest understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. (Anyone who’s seen me do the wallflower thing at a networking session might agree even more, but then again, you weren’t looking because I was doing the wallflower thing.)

But thanks to the internet and my ability to snark wise, I’ve found a little bit of a path for myself to cut through the weirdness of human connection. Jokes that lose all momentum in the context of speaking gain pacing through a keyboard and become things that constantly improve. All the discomforts that I feel when talking to a group of people slowly fade away. And all the puns that my wife gives me grief for suddenly have a little bit more meaning and context.

What about the people who struggle to start a conversation? Certainly, we want them to be members as well, right?

I’ve gained a lot through online connections, which means that Sherry Turkle’s presentation at the 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit last week was a little, shall we say, challenging for me. I understood where she was coming from—and the points she made about devices getting in the way of real conversation certainly are deserving of the consideration she was pushing.

On the other hand, I think it was one of those times when a certain segment of the audience nodded their heads and just “got it,” and another segment felt a bit left out. I’d like to speak for those who felt left out.

To put this in ASAE Annual Meeting context: Back in 2013, author Susan Cain spoke at the Opening General Session and urged attendees to see the value that introverts bring to the table. Her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, represents the other side of the coin from what Turkle said. We have to embrace our introverts, many of whom find more comfort interacting online, but at the same time we don’t want them constantly looking at their phones.

According to a Myers-Briggs test I took awhile back, I ranked a perfect 50 percent between introvert and extrovert. I gain energy from being productive on my lonesome, but I like human interaction. I’m the perfect candidate for being a heavy tweeter—it’s a way of communicating that allows me to speak my mind without worrying about needing to break the ice.

I don’t think Turkle is necessarily missing that point, but it may be lost in her research. What about the people who struggle to start a conversation? Certainly, we want them to be members as well, right?

People who have trouble breaking the ice in larger communities now have a very effective way to get the conversation going. If we see smartphones and laptops only as distractions, we may not see that they enable people who may not have spoken up in the past—and who might not have become members of an organization—to join in.

Tempting Fate by Tweeting

During Turkle’s presentation, I admit that I tweeted a bunch—but the conversations I was having with those willing to divide their attention by doing the same were enlightening. Some attendees thought she was giving an important form of conversation short shrift:

Others admitted many of her points were fair but not necessarily inclusive of the whole spectrum of people:

And others suggested there was value to social media as an ice breaker but admitted that certainly has some downsides:

I’m in that last category, though I feel the other points have significant merit.

These Relationships Have Value

Perhaps it might help, at least in an event and networking context, to think of social media the way one might think of online dating.

Some people gravitate toward Tinder or, while others are more comfortable meeting people at a bar, a coffee shop, the office, or in other ways. Does that make people who like online dating less engaged in the relationships that eventually arise? I think anyone who’s made a successful eHarmony connection would probably disagree.

I will admit that my wife—who didn’t meet me via online dating, who doesn’t use social media like I do, and who loves me very much, I think—would be happy to see me put my phone away more often. She gives me the stink eye whenever I look at the device while I’m at a restaurant. (I feel the guilt whenever that happens. And I struggle with it.) And as a result, I find myself begging for forgiveness more often than permission.

(For what it’s worth, I talked to my wife about this keynote and my reaction to what Turkle said, and—bless her heart—she told me I’ve been using social media as a crutch! I can always trust her to tell it like it is.)

But I don’t think I’m alone here. Online connections often feel just as real to me as some of the in-person connections I eventually make. Turkle claimed that social media interactions often feel “transactional”; I’m not sure I agree with that wholeheartedly.

Social Media’s Gray Areas

A lot of the comments I saw on Twitter during Turkle’s session noted the relationships that were built because of social media and mobile devices—relationships that eventually moved into real life through conferences and similar meeting experiences but started through a couple of screens.

That’s not to say she’s wrong about her ultimate point—we often do get sucked into our devices. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that large groups, like human bodies, have wrinkles, and because they’re imperfect, they sometimes stray from the conventional rules of human interaction.

In associations, we interact with people from many varied walks of life, and ultimately, online interactions provide a starting point for meeting real people—not an ending point.

I, for one, feel like I would have drowned quickly without that starting point.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!