Marjorie Clayman

Social Media Networks: Robot Friends with Off Switches

By: Marjorie Clayman | May 22, 2013 | 

We Are RobotsIn Sherry Turkle’s amazing book, Alone Together, she tells the story of a man named Adam.

Adam has the goal of becoming either a songwriter or a screenwriter, but at the time Turkle meets him, he is just trying to make ends meet so that he can work on his passion projects.

There’s a problem, though.

Adam is not feeling productive or validated in anything he is doing in his real life.

As a release, he turns to two online games, and slowly, his online reality becomes far more pleasurable and rewarding than his real life.

In playing Civilization, for example, Adam is a ruler, a monarch. He can save “people.” He can earn loyalty from his subjects. Heck, he can save the world. Adam is finding himself playing these games for 15-hour-long stretches. When he stops playing he gets depressed almost immediately.

What really got my attention about this story was not these details, however. It was a much smaller portion of the story. Adam tells Turkle he once met a great woman named Erin. They had played online Scrabble together. Adam describes her as his best friend and confidante and then mentions he has lost track of her. “She moved on to a different game.” From best friend to nothing in 60 seconds. What does this say about Erin’s status as a best friend? What does it say about Adam that he refers to a passing online acquaintance in those terms?

The point of Turkle’s book is that while social media connects us, it also dehumanizes us. Just as Adam could play Civilization to fill various holes in his life, people can connect with other humans online that similarly fill gaps from the real world. Maybe you stay connected to me because I often tell you how smart you are, and that’s something you don’t hear very often in your offline life. When your self-esteem is low, therefore, you might seek me out, tell me what you’re up to, and get your fill of validation.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Once I have filled that need for you and I’ve gotten you feeling better, you can sign out of our conversation. I can be dismissed, much like taking a battery out of a robot. Now you can go be your confident self online or offline. As Turkle puts it, we become spare parts for each other.

Look back on the story of Erin “changing games” and therefore losing contact with Adam. Let’s say Facebook was suddenly shut down by evil aliens who took over the government. You are no longer able to sign in to communicate with your connections there. How many people would you have to talk to in that scenario?

Having left “that game,” would you lose touch with 90 percent of the people you talk to daily now? The answer, if you think about it, is probably yes. Yet we call each other friends, give updates on our families and our health, and strive, often, to extend our online friendships into something more.

According to Turkle, this does not differ from how humans relate to Artificial Intelligence. Any being that makes you feel loved can cause you to feel attachment and even affection, and she goes to great pains to prove this fact. But robots – whether they are your social media connections or your kid’s furby, are even better than real life because if you don’t feel like dealing with them, you can just turn them off.

You can go “off grid.” You can turn off your email. In unplugging yourself from your social media networks and the online world, I posit what you’re really doing is unplugging your robot friends till you want to deal with them again. Friends have become objects of convenience.

The repercussions of this realization can be complex and multi-layered, of course. We do not like to think that we use actual human beings in this way, nor do we like to think we are used this way. But consider what would happen if you made all of your social media outlets unavailable. How many people would still have the ability to contact you via phone or in person?

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. Freaky, isn’t it?

About Marjorie Clayman

Marjorie Clayman is Vice President of client services for her family's full service marketing firm, Clayman Marketing Communications. Margie is founder of Homespun Helpers, an organization on Facebook that has the goal of making and donating 3,000 items to charity in 2013, and is one of four co-founders of Blankies for Boston. Margie also guest blogs for Razoo, Intervistato, Sensei Marketing, Leaderswest, and Carol Roth.

  • Excellent post, Margie. I am still working through Alone, Together as it makes me kinda glum and I can’t read it in long stretches. The flip side of this is taking friends off the screen and into the real. I’ve been so fortunate to meet some of my amazing online peeps in person, and now consider them real friends. Like I hope to meet you someday!

    • margieclayman

      RebeccaTodd that’s something she does not cover a lot – I agree that i have had the opportunity to take quite a few friendships into the real – via phone or skype or even face-to-face meetings. That can change the dynamic dramatically. The great majority of our connections, however, will not reach that point. I think exploring what that concept of “community” really means is super important, and it’s necessary to keep it in perspective.

  • brandcottage

    Wow! Excellent post Magie. And unbelievably truthful. And I guess a little sad.

    • margieclayman

      brandcottage It can be sad, but I think it’s just so easy for people to lose perspective online. Even sadder is when that perspective actually does get lost, as is the case with Adam. That can become a very slippery slope.

  • susancellura

    And, what’s scary is that our kids are growing up wired as the norm. After reading your post, it reinforces the question, “what about them”?

    • margieclayman

      susancellura That’s something that Turkle talks about a *lot*. She talks to a lot of kids who note that they kind of “freak out” without their phones. My friend Ellen Bremen (@chattyprof) also has talked to students after she assigns them to take a 3-day “social media fast.” One student said, “When I got together with friends face-to-face we couldn’t seem to talk. It made me feel like our friendship wasn’t real.” It’s a huge issue.

      • susancellura

        margieclayman Team sports!

  • You know that has been an issue for me this past year. With all the challenges I have had in the past year and a half, I have had to be online far less. What it did for me is make me see what online friendships were real and which ones were not. 
    This post is a good reminder for all of us.

    • margieclayman

      NancyD68 Thanks Nancy. Yes, when the going gets tough, you learn quickly who you can turn to. If you put all of your eggs in the social media basket as folks like Adam did, you can feel extremely isolated when real life happens, as it inevitably does.

  • Bob Farnham

    < 3 would still <3 me

  • Gini Dietrich

    Says who?!

  • Bob Farnham

    >3 would still

  • Desmond Jordon

    Would my pen pals count?

  • Gini Dietrich


  • Bill Sweet

    Well, you, right?

  • John McTigue

    Must be a trick question. The same number I think. Social media is just another way to communicate with them.

  • Bob Farnham

    <3 u2 😉

  • Troy Newhouse

    My list of friends can’t get any lower than zero, so it would stay the same.

  • Jono Smith

    Just Gini because she has the best OOTO emails

  • Cision North America

    My mind couldn’t grasp the line ‘social media networks shutdown.’ All I could think was HORROR – PURE HORROR! 🙂

  • Gini Dietrich

    I feel like I have to one up myself every time

  • Gini Dietrich

    You are hilarious.

  • This is really interesting and thought-provoking, Margie. I can see the truth in this, but (for me) it’s not the relationships that I “turn off” that truly matter to me. I am old enough to remember not having a computer or internet connection. I think I’ve always had friends that were “friends with context”. Maybe they were church friends. Maybe they were school friends or even just class friends. Or random-group-I-was-involved-in friends. We were friends in that environment, but when it was over (off) we didn’t stay in touch. My dad would tell me those are not true friends anyway – they’re merely acquaintances. He talked to me so much about friendships when I was growing up – helping me define the level of intimacy in a relationship so I could look at interactions with my friends and “friends” in the proper perspective. 
    I think the world runs on mostly superficial relationships because we can’t be the kind of close friend that’s there whenever, wherever, whatever happens to more than a few people. To me, it seems natural that most of anyone’s online relationships would follow that pattern. I have met two spouses online – one is my life partner (15 years!!!) and the other is my business partner. 😉 They are both very close friends.
    I think it’s okay that we turn these relationships on and off – after all, I’m being turned on and off too. I don’t feel used, so I hope my friends don’t either. I truly value them, despite the different levels of closeness. I’m also open to ebbs and flows of relationships where an acquaintance suddenly becomes a long-lasting close and trusted confidant. Now I just have to raise my son to have that kind of respect for relationships. And hope other parents do too.
    Where I would be worried is if someone never develops any intimate relationships (online or off), or if they develop intensely close relationships online but never want to meet in person. Those both seem like there could be deeper issues.

    • margieclayman

      Karen_C_Wilson Hi Karen – thanks for the kind words!
      Your last paragraph is what Turkle really focuses on. As people become more enmeshed in video games or in the online world, they lose hold of what’s “real life” and what isn’t. They lose perspective. In the case of Adam, we get the sense that he might not even be sure that “Erin” was really his “best friends” name. Erin could have been a man from Iraq. Who knows? But he invested a lot of his sense of well-being into this person and yet seems to take it in stride that she “went to another game.”
      What does this mean for his ability to grasp real relationships? Does he invest “hot and heavy” till he or the other person gets tired of the relationship? 
      I see people on social media who seem to be in danger of that same kind of game-playing, and I am worried for them. I’m not sure they have your rational approach to the idea of friendship, for example. They’ve got a long road to hoe.

  • rdopping

    Brilliantly delicious piece Margie. How true in so many ways. Don’t we love to joke about oulives and share our hopes and d in both realitrealities? It is very difficult for me to say my off-line relationships trump but they do and you can, if necessary, turn them off but in doing so have to deal with the repercussions in real time. There’s no crafting a witty comeback in those circumstances.
    Are you as real to me as the people I work with? Methinks that’s true.
    Tough one to think about.

    • margieclayman

      rdopping Makes your head spin after awhile, doesn’t it? That’s a big part of what Turkle’s book is about. She starts by talking about things like “real baby” or AI robots that are programmed to ask for attention or offer affection. Most people, even though they know the baby isn’t “real,” can’t continue to let it cry. Does that make it real? If so, what is “real” these days? Goofy, huh? 🙂

  • Wow this is one of those posts I’ll need to sit back and really think deeply about. Thanks for writing such a meaty one, Margie! I wonder whether all of this “push the button get a pellet” socializing is making us more selfish, but then I see things like Seth Godin rallying people to sign up as marrow donors for his friend, and then I think that social simply amplifies our existing personalities. Lots to ponder here…

    • margieclayman

      rosemaryoneill Social Media as a tool can be used to do phenomenal things. However, I worry about people who end up infusing a lot of their feelings of self-worth into the online reality. If you begin to depend on a person who does not have that same relationship with you or with the online world, you can really get your feelings hurt.

  • Totes.
    I love this post. Like rosemaryoneill. I have nothing else of value to add except I wish I could write like you, Margie.

    • margieclayman

      Shonali That’s extremely kind of you, especially since you already write tons better than me!

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Seriously, can you just send me some things to post on the Arment Dietrich page so I seem funny?! ^yp

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Of course! ^yp

  • Desmond Jordon

    I’m just following your lead, YP. It takes two to quip.

  • OK, I didn’t catch the byline when I started reading, but when I came across “furby”…I knew Margie had written the post.
    Seems like we’ve had several discussions around this topic. If the friendships only persist in the game, and do not move on to other touchpoints, then that is truly just an acquaintance. I’d like to think that Margie – and many other folks in the SpinSucks community – have crossed over that acquaintance line with me. Engaging on multiple platforms, and possibly crossing over to IRL meetings, cement those relationships.
    If FB ever “dries up and blows away”, we will still find our community. Hey, we will always have G+ Hangouts…because Google is NEVER going away, right?

  • Pingback: I'm OK, You're OK: Social Friendship and Gut Instincts by @belllindsaySpin Sucks()

  • MZazeela

    Adam’s story was a sobering one. He had ruined his relationships, was on the verge of unemployment, knew the consequences of his actions, yet all he could think about was that infernal game in his virtual world that had become the master of his life.
     Online gaming, and interacting in general,  seems to be as addictive as cocaine or heroin.
    Take control, lest you become controlled.