Towards a Networked Social Practice

by Christina Yglesias


In the contemporary social moment, we now interact, on a daily level, with our friends, families, and even strangers in ways that simply didn’t exist about ten years or twenty years ago, depending on the particular technology in question. Now, in most communities, the state of being constantly connected via social-media and smart-phone features is the social norm. Our smartphones are the last thing we touch as we set our morning alarms and settle into bed and the first things we interact with when we get up in the morning. We wake up, snooze the alarm and settle into checking our emails, social media feeds, texts, and check world news, all before a morning cup of coffee or a shower. Marshall McLuhan, over fifty years ago, in 1964, seemed to predict this hyper-connected phenomenon. "Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man-- the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media." (McLuhan 1964 1)

Our smartphones extend and complicate our social and psychological spheres, transcending the status mere tools. We do utilize tool functions like maps, calculators, and online banking, but from the same device we call our moms, perform our identities through image and text, capture and record our daily lives, find romantic partners, and maybe even Tweet at the president. Whether or not we participate in each of these methods of communication, the logic of the methods have bled into the very fabric of our lives and selves. Whether our smartphones are in our hands or stowed in our pockets (or frustratingly out of battery power), the way we view the world, ourselves, and our social sphere is irrevocably altered, perhaps expanded. In the words of Nathan Jurgenson, sociologist and ‘in-house philosopher’ at Snap Inc, “The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line” (Jurgenson 2011). He argues that the IRL (In Real Life) versus online distinction is a fallacy, but instead our online and offline lives are inextricably linked, blurred, and blended. So rather than look at technologically mediated communications as separate and different from face-to-face social interactions, we must consider everything together as one large social sphere where everything is linked. Interactions and relationships cross-pollinate to and from Facebook to friend groups, from family to FaceTime, from Tinder to the bedroom, from Instagram to arts communities, from group texts to dinner parties. The scope of human relations has broadened and as a result, become more complex. "The clear distinction between the on and offline, between human and technology, is queered beyond tenability. It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends. We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off." (Jurgenson 2012)

Along with these new forms of technologically mediated communication, subsequent techno-anxieties have arisen (and become the subject of many TED talks, op-eds, and pop science best-sellers). Sherry Turkle, researcher at MIT, clinical psychologist, and author has risen as one of the more prominent voices warning about the negative social and psychological impacts of our networked culture. She describes the paradoxical impact of being connected through technology as the state of being “alone together”. She warns of parents who ignore their children in favor of their work emails, adolescents who don’t learn from the vulnerabilities of face to face interaction, and children who are trading empathy for efficiency. "We expect more from technology and less from each other. Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. We’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved." (Turkle 2012)

As a remedy to the problem she has laid out, Turkle calls for a return to non-mediated communication. The solution is a simple, tech-free one: to talk to one another more, unplugged and face-to-face. She calls for more eye contact, camping trips with no cell reception, parties with phones put away, family dinners with tech-free policies, and even tech “detoxes”. She claims we are now in a moment in which we must stop being seduced by our (relatively) new devices and begin using them with more awareness of how they impact our social selves. Time with technology should be limited and controlled, time alone with ourselves should be nurtured, and moments with friends and family should not be interrupted by phone use. 

Underlying Turkle’s arguments, and many other similar calls to unplug, log-off, and simply get back to real life, is the assumption that online and offline are separate spheres. Following this thread, online and offline are not simply separate, but hierarchical. The online is framed as a simulacrum of real life offline and therefore the real should be privileged as much as possible. Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism”. to describe this conceptualizing of technology and life. Thinking of our identity performance and social interactions filtered through technology as separate from our real selves is a falsehood that keeps discussions of technology stuck on the wrong question and offering flat solutions. This view allows questions of authenticity, whether of self or of relationship, to be solved by simply putting our phones down. Instead, Jurgenson argues that our relationships with ourselves and others is and always will be complex. Blaming recent technologies for our loneliness, our vulnerability, our questions of self, our search for meaning in relationships and our lives is a solution that is just too simple. Instead, we should recognize that our online and offline spheres are intertwined to the point that they cannot be separated, and that this relationship is simply one more complex aspect of being a human being today. However, in Turkle’s view, there is simply no way that technologically mediated connection can ever support relationships in the same way that face-to-face interactions can. "Life is not a problem looking for a quick fix. Life is a conversation and you need places to have it. The virtual provides us with more spaces for these conversations and these are enriching. But what makes the physical so precious is that it supports continuity in a different way; it doesn’t come and go, and it binds people to it. You can’t just log off or drop out." (Turkle 2016 331)

To Turkle, technology is often used to simplify complex human relationships, cleaning up and ignoring the beautiful messiness of real-life connection. Technology is used as a buffer to ward-off vulnerability, to keep one another at a distance. If things get uncomfortable, one can simply log-off or drop out. In fact, this is so common that a new slang-term has arisen out of networked culture: ‘ghosting’. To ghost someone is so simply stop returning their texts, messages, perhaps even to block or ‘unfriend’. Ghosting a romantic interest is certainly easier than having an uncomfortable breakup conversation, and easier still than the breakup email or text. As this kind of behavior becomes normalized, voices like Turkle call modern romance cold, uncaring, and lacking empathy. While I personally am not old enough to have experienced dating before technology, I can venture to guess that earlier generations had plenty of ways to ignore unwanted conversations and interactions. Perhaps it was easier to pretend to be too busy to return a call when the person on the other end couldn’t see your Instagram feed. While it’s easy to cite example like these to show how the youth of networked culture are growing up without critical social skills, those kids who would ‘rather text than call’, what about examples where technology can bring people together, illicit empathy, and build connections?

While Turkle’s arguments do to tap into real and common fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities around technology, and therefore should not be discounted completely, her work has been accused of cherry picking research that shows only the negative social impacts of technology. Turkle cites research that shows young people returning from tech-free camps with higher levels of empathy, further strengthening her call to action to use our technology more mindfully, morally, and simply put, less often. She sites another study that showed that the presence of a cellphone (even a silenced one) during a face-to-face conversation will lower the possibility of an emotional and empathetic connection of that interaction. The mere sight of a cellphone seems to suggest that a conversation can be interrupted at moment, implying that it is not truly important to one or more of its participants. This does seem intuitively true to anyone who has looked around in a restaurant and complained about families and friends looking down at their devices, rather than up over the table at one another. Few, including myself, will argue that phones aren’t sometimes distracting, whether from work or a dinner conversation, but why must the discussion end there? Technology can disconnect us, but when and how can it facilitate and deepen connection? To deny that technology can offer possibilities of enriching or expanding one’s social sphere is to only consider part of the contemporary moment.

This cycle of claim and counter claim is not new. For as long as there have been social media and mobile devices, there have also been articles or books aimed at lay audiences arguing that we’re trading real life for something digital. And then come the replies from researchers who have found that the relationship is much more complicated — that people who text more often also meet face to face more; that the contemporary technologies of social isolation were, and are, the television and the automobile, not smart phones; that there’s been a recent reversal of the long post–World War II trend toward social isolation. (Jurgenson 2016)

Rather than asking whether technology connects or disconnects us, we should be asking when, how, and why it does both, sometimes simultaneously. Furthermore, we need to investigate how forms of technologically mediated communication differ from one another, rather than lumping them into one large category of less than real life.  What affordances and limitations does each tool come with? When are certain kinds of communication helpful and when are they harmful? Perhaps we can even learn to be kinder to one another with the help of technology in the right moments. As artists and makers, can we build tools and frameworks to facilitate empathy? We must interrogate technology in order to learn more about our relationship to it. In fact, researchers are looking into these very questions. "Under the right conditions, digitally mediated text, images, and interactions improve our ability to understand each other, reduce stereotypes, and increase helping behavior. It therefore behooves us to understand the conditions under which these positive benefits persist, and the conditions under which they dissipate." (Davis 2016)

This moment and its techno-social anxiety offers ripe territories not only for research, writing, and debating but also for artistic practice. To describe an artistic inquiry rooted in these questions, I coin the term networked social practice. Since this essay has already discussed the contemporary networked moment, I will now focus on the second part of the term, social practice

The term social practice sometimes used interchangeably with relational aesthetics refers to “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (Bourriad 2003 113). While the whole of human relations is quite an expansive parameter, artists working in this area (mostly around the late 90s’s and early 2000’s) often set up physical spaces in order to fabricate a particular social situation for the viewer (or perhaps more aptly, participant) to experience. Relational aesthetics was most active as an artistic movement at the historical moment of the early internet, which is perhaps why the artistic movement tended towards utopian leanings. Work that takes “the whole of human relations” as its material should be accessible and transparent to its participants, but it often remained opaque and insular to the art world that could understand and contextualize it. Within the art discourse, it was also criticized. In the words of Hal Foster “the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star” (Bishop 2004 54-55).

Criticism of social practice aside, I intend to re-ignite some of its original inquiries, but placing them in the context of our contemporary moment of a networked and hyper-connected social culture. Rirkrit Tiravanaji, arguably one of the most well known social practice artists, lays out the focus of his methods of working as follows. "The situation is not about looking at art. It is about being in the space, participating in the activity. The nature of the visit has shifted to emphasize on the gallery as a space for social interaction. The transfer of such activities as cooking, eating, or sleeping into the realm of the exhibition space put visitors into very intimate if unexpected contact; the displacement creates an acute awareness of the notion of public and private, the installations function like scientific experiments: the displacement becomes a tool and exposes the way scientific thought processes are constructed. The visitor becomes a participant in that experiment." (Art Observed 2011)

My interests lie less in creating frameworks for in-person interaction and more in facilitating communication through technological frameworks. However, networked social practice still does touch upon much of what Tiravanaji lays out, including the approach of experimentation, participation, and issues of public/private. My work explores the emotional efficacy of technologically mediated communications within built frameworks. These frameworks often translate one form of communication to another form (texting into acted videos, text into recorded voice) to see where emotional nuance is lost and gained in the same content. I build frameworks and plan situations in which the desire for connection is explored and even exploited, but connection is filtered through technological means. 

In my piece, the Forgiveness Network, I created a web platform where participants can request and offer forgiveness anonymously to one another through text-based interactions. An in-progress aspect of the project will allow participants to access an archive of voice-recordings of these text exchanges. In order to listen to the archives, the user must first create a voice recording of another user’s anonymous text response. The web portion of the project explores the emotional efficacy of text-based, anonymous online communication. The sound archive seeks to re-inject some of the emotional nuances that get can potentially become blurred with text-based communication while also exploring the psychological impact of performing empathy. Sincerity, performativity of emotion, empathy, and the meaning of forgiveness are all implicated through participation. Questions raised include: Does forgiveness mean anything when it is offered and then performed by two different strangers? What does connection mean and what are different methods of achieving it? How do we navigate communicating emotionally loaded and uncomfortable subjects in a tech-saturated world? 

In an untitled work in progress, I am again exploring anonymity and text based communication, but with myself in a more active role (rather than just building a framework for participants to interact with one another). My project began with the following question: What would someone want to talk about with a stranger they would never meet in person? I posted the following ad on craigslist’s strictly platonic section, both in the women for men and women for women subsections. 

Looking for a texting pen-pal

I'm looking for a texting buddy, just someone to chat via text. Nothing romantic, just friends to talk about whatever interests us. Email me if you want to try it out.

I received close to fifteen emails responses from men in less than an hour, before taking the ad down. I received a total of about six responses from women before that version of the ad expired on its own. I responded to each email, giving each person my phone number and inviting them to text me, or texting them if they gave me their number. I gave myself a set of rules in approaching the interaction (which I did not share with my participants). The first rule was that I would not play a role, in other words, I would be myself. If a participant asked me a question, I would answer it honestly, even if it were a personal question. The second rule was that I would let the other person lead the conversation as much as possible. If they asked me a question, I would answer it and ask them the same question. If they didn’t text me for a day or several days, I wouldn’t text them first, instead waiting for them to initiate the continued conversation. The third rule was that I would continue the conversations unless a boundary was crossed. While I never clearly laid the boundaries out, I wouldn’t tolerate anything explicitly sexual. (However, one participant did push the boundaries of the ‘strictly platonic’, treating me like a pseudo-girlfriend, calling me ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’.) The final rule was that I would tell the participants that I was undergoing these conversations as an experiment and an art project. I also asked their permission to use the texting conversations as scripts for videos, to which everyone agreed. A few of the conversations had naturally petered out before this part of the discussion occurred, so I ended up with six permissioned scripts. 

From these scripts, I am creating a video installation that plays with ideas of distance/closeness, connection/disconnection, and the blurring of the distinction between digital and IRL interaction. Using any information I had about each participant, I posted casting calls for actors on Craigslist. For some of the participants, I had some basic demographic information: age, gender, race, occupation. (For one participant, all I knew about him was his gender.) Ihired several actors to play myself, using a different actor for each of my conversations, also only using the information about myself that I shared with the participants. I brought the actors in one by one, filming their half of the conversations separately and line by line. This way of shooting the scripts emphasizes the discrete nature of each text as its own piece of information and the way that a text message conversations unfolds piece by piece. Filming the actors separately also reinforced the feeling of having a conversation through technology, only being able to imagine what the person on the other end of the line is like. This allows an openness of interpretation about the other person and even room for fantasy to creep in. It also allows for a certain amount of freedom in one’s own performativity of self. One man I talked to discussed just this when I asked him why he wanted to talk to a stranger via text. (I used this question to transition into the consent/permission conversation with each participant.) "Well for instance take me. I wasn’t looking to impress anyone or catch anyone’s eye. I was looking to exchange some friendly conversations without being judged by looks or have someone wonder if I was trying to pick up on them. With a stranger (on line) you can be 1 of 2 things. Your complete and total self or you can be someone completely made up. I think people who are someone made up, join Kik or instagram or some other social media sink hold. So I am just myself."

As a self-proclaimed networked social practice artist, my goals are to continue to investigate the emotional, psychological, and social impacts of ubiquitous technologies. The specific technologies and platforms are likely to shift and change, but my work will attempt to explore the current moment at any given time. I will continue to push the boundaries of public/private, distance/intimacy, and connection/disconnection. I also plan to further experiment with placing myself in my work, playing with power dynamics, gender, as well as my own vulnerability and notions of privacy. I will also continue to theorize my work and place it within a larger art historical perspective and further investigate its position in contemporary art. 

Works Cited

"AO On Site: New York – Rirkrit Tiravanija “Fear Eats the Soul” opening at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise Saturday, March 5, show runs through April 16, 2011." Art Observed. AO Art Observed, Mar. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Bishop, Claire. Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. New York: City U of New York, 2004. Print.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. France: Presses du réel, 2002 (originally published in 1998). Print.

Davis, Jenny. "Our devices are not turning us into unfeeling robots." The Kernel. The Daily Dot, Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Jurgenson, Nathan. "Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality." Cyborgology. The Society Pages, 15 May 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Jurgenson, Nathan. "Fear of Screens." The New Inquiry. The New, 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Jurgenson, Nathan. "The IRL Fetish." The New Inquiry. The New Inquiry, 28 June 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge (Mass.): The MIT Press, 2013 (originally published 1964). Print.

Turkle, Sherry. “Connected, but Alone?” TED. April 2012. Lecture.

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age. NY, NY: Penguin , 2016. Print.