Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Good question...

Quite frequently when I give a talk about my research, I usually get one of those questions. I think we probably all have them. The question that we dread not because it is particularly challenging, nor because it strikes at the heart of the research (although they can be the subject of night-before-cold-sweat-style-dreams). No the kind of question I really hate is the one that is so resoundingly stupid, so you-haven't-thought-about-this-for-more-than-a-second-have-you? that you wonder how to pitch your face. The one that I've been getting quite a lot recently when I talk about social network sites and the goes something like:

"But how is all this any different from having pen pals?"

Now I do kinda know what he (and it is always a he) means. Kinda.

He has probably been reading the usual deranged Daily-Mail style spoutings that social networking is shrinking our brains and that in the Future all teenagers will be born with massive, prehensile thumbs and a 3mm jack socket instead of a belly button, and seem me in the same mold. Shame because IF HE HAD ACTUALLY LISTENED instead of occupying his mind imagining what it must be like to suck a lemon and thus pulling the appropriate facial expression, he would have seen that I wasn't saying that at all. Quite the opposite.


Is the use of social network sites like penpals? Yes, of course,  and an Ipod is like really the same as a ukelele (both are portable and play music). You can imagine that the first time the telephone was revealed to an admiring public demonstrating that people could now communicate at a distance immediately Mr Penpal's great grandfather would put up his weary hand, clear his throat and in a disparaging voice ask "but how is this any different from shouting?"

People can be divided into two categories: those who think that each new technology represents some kind of quantum leap in the way we do things (for good or for bad), and those who think that everything is just the same as everything else, really. Susan Greenfield's and Aric Sigman's recent pronouncements represent the negative side of the everything is going to change. Who represents the same-old-same-old view? Well there's Mr Penpal, of course, but the media won't speak to him because, as well as being as dull as a horned toad, he just isn't newsworthy.

Or is he?

About a year and a half ago I excited a degree of media interest which must have had the headline writers straining. Basically my message was "social networking not really all that different from what you do face to face." As a media friendly message it was not all that different from saying "dog bites man", or "bear shits in wood". But it must have been a slack news week and the headline writers must have had extra cocaine rations of something because they pulled it off. I even appeared on News 24. Nerve racking but exciting, me on telly! Better phone my parents! But it was an awful experience. I teetered on a barstool in the corner of an empty room in Leeds seeing my perspiring face on a large monitor while the folk in the studio in London joked and flirted and doubtless slapped each other with towels. Then I was on. I won't say any more as it is far too distressing to recount, but my earpiece kept slipping out and I think I felt that to save time I would economise by saying more than one word at once.

I thought it best not to tell my parents.

I did a few other things, but then it all faded away. I got the occasional call from Mumbia or Dhaka, presumably places where visible perspiration and continually playing with one's ear is seen as deserving of some kind of respect.

When Aric Sigman did his thing a couple of weeks ago I half expected to get a call from the media.

Producer: "Hey have you heard this? This chap Aric Sigman is saying that social network sites give you cancer. Who can we get on to challenge him?"

Researcher: "There's always Mr Sweaty."

Producer: "Mmmmmmmm"

They never called.

But they wouldn't call Mr Penpal either.


  1. Many questions can be asked in two ways. "How is A different from B?" is a perfectly legitimate question if it is understood as an analytical probe - what can we learn from the similarities and differences between A and B.

    What you are presumably objecting to is the presumptive close - when the question is asked in a way that presumes the answer "None".

    I am afraid I find it hard to deal with such questions without adopting a patronizingly sarcastic tone of voice. "Well, that's amazingly clever of you to spot that parallel, now let me point out to you some of the differences between A and B you may not have noticed."

  2. I think one of the reasons I hate such questions is because I find it so hard not to be patronizing and do not like to be so. At least not in public. There are strong parallels to an recent-ish review by Jerry Fodor of a book by Andy Clark http://tinyurl.com/dh67pg where Fodor amusingly discusses 'untenable dualisms' (mind versus body, the individual versus society, etc.) I think his general point is that some distinctions are simply worth making because they do actually make a difference.

  3. Another example - people ask WHY questions not when they want to know the cause but when they want to express disapproval. As in "Why does she wear that dress?"