Google Makes You Smarter, Facebook Makes You Happier, Selfies Make You A Better Person

Writer Sherry Turkle is using selfies to promote a popular argument: that technology harms the way we relate to each other. But she’s wrong and outdated—and listening to her makes us miss what’s really important.

When you take a selfie, your soul is ripped away like meat off bone. You are a shell of a person, the selfie having captured the last life in your eyes. This, finally, is the deadening conclusion printed in the New York Times yesterday after our months of collective selfie obsession. "It does things to us," author Sherry Turkle warns with a trembling finger, "changing not just what we do but who we are."

This is a familiar form of scaremongering. Facebook makes you lonely! Google makes you stupid! Apple Maps make you go the wrong direction on the highway! That last one, of course, is true. The rest? They’re based mostly upon misinterpreted science—studies, say, that show neural pathways altering in response to computer use, just as the brain does when you learn to drive a car or play guitar. "Change" is not always bad; it can be natural. But just look at how Turkle casts it: It is an existential threat.

I know a few things about selfies. I launched a Tumblr called Selfies at Funerals, which was one of Tumblr’s most viral of the year. It culminated rather spectacularly with President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. I’ve also taken plenty of selfies—not at funerals, but just about everywhere else, as has every friend and colleague. Despite what Turkle says, we are not victims because of it. Anyone who finds value in technology should resent the condescension.

Turkle isn’t the only one to make these arguments, but she makes them the loudest and most frequently. She has a book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and she’d like you to buy it. You’re more likely to do that if you’re afraid of your cell phone, so she’s stirring unnecessary fear founded on either total misunderstandings or intentional ignorance. Which is it? To find out, let’s pick her latest piece apart, selfie by selfie.

Turkle Claim #1: Selfies stop us from connecting the right way

Last spring, I had the occasion to spend a day with the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari discussing our mutual interest in the psychology of texting. As we walked through Los Angeles, people approached him every few minutes not to ask for an autograph, but to demand a photograph. Mr. Ansari is gracious to his fans. He explained that instead of a photograph, he would offer a conversation. He inquired about their taste in music, what they liked about his performances, his stand-up, his sitcom "Parks and Recreation." His fans were mollified but they were rarely happy. They had to walk away with nothing on their phones.

Let’s assume that Aziz Ansari does this all the time, even when he’s not trying to make a point with an anti-technology academic. That is unusually generous of him. And here, Turkle sets up her strawman: There is an ideal, pure, and uninterrupted way that people should connect. Let’s give it a name: The Perfect Talk. As you’ll see as we go through her essay, Turkle is always finding that technology blocks our capacity to achieve The Perfect Talk. That is the core of our loss, the thing technology has robbed us of.

In this instance, what is The Perfect Talk? It is a fan coming up and having a meaningful conversation with Aziz Ansari. Turkle doesn’t consider that perhaps fans don’t want to connect with him in that way—not because of selfies, but because actors and fans have a transactional relationship. The actor produces, and the fan receives. I’ve met many of my favorite actors and athletes, and though it’s fun, I often have nothing meaningful to say to them. I just want the experience of saying hello, and a memento.

A selfie beats an autograph, and sometimes it even beats a conversation. It just does. And that’s okay. We want different things from different people. We always have.

Turkle Claim #2: Selfies cause us to miss out on life

A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. … The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us "on pause" in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations "on pause" when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.

Turkle claims an activity is either an experience or an interruption. It isn’t that simple. Have you ever pulled your friends together for a photograph, and struck a pose? Have you ever crowded heads with your boyfriend or girlfriend, making faces into a camera to make each other laugh? These aren’t interruptions of a moment; they are a moment. Some selfies are frivolous, of course, but so are some conversations. Technology can create togetherness. Turkle won’t concede this.

Then she raises the stakes: Selfies not only take us out of our experiences with others, she claims, but also rob us of the ability to reflect "on where you are and what you are thinking." The funeral-selfie takers on my Tumblr may have seemed disrespectful, but consider, for a moment, that most were expressing themselves in the most genuine way they thought to. Childhood is solipsistic; we see the world through our own experience of it. The selfie gave these kids a moment to quite literally look at themselves in their environment, and reflect on where they are and what they are thinking. It provided what Turkle claims it stole away.

Yes, their selfies look different from whatever Turkle did in her introspective teenager years. But that doesn’t mean introspection isn’t happening. What does she want—for kids to sit still and meditate? What kid did that even before the iPhone?

Turkle Claim #3: Selfies change the way we communicate

We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything. I talk to young people about etiquette when they go out to dinner, and they explain to me that when in a group of, say, seven, they make sure that at least three people are "heads up" in the "talking" conversation at any one time. … All of this has become the new normal.

It’s true, some kids can be rude. But they’re also rabid communicators. Turkle’s right: We’re witnessing a new normal. Here are some other grumpy seniors that stared down a new normal:

Socrates, who came from a culture with a strong oral tradition, was concerned by the rise of people writing things down: "[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."

In 1906, composer John Philip Sousa feared how recorded music would destroy the ability to socialize at parties: "The country dance orchestra of violin, guitar and melodeon had to rest at times, and the resultant interruption afforded the opportunity for general sociability and rest among the entire company. Now a tireless mechanism can keep everlastingly at it, and much of what made the dance a wholesome recreation is eliminated."

In 1925, Princeton University Dean Howard McClenahan tied the car to a moral crisis: "The automobile gave increased opportunities on Sunday and thus lessened the chances of church attendance. The general effect of the automobile was to make the present generation look lightly at the moral code, and to decrease the value of the home."

History is full of Turkles, and naturally so. Hers is such a terrifying idea, and yet such an appealing one: If we are at the vanguard of social change, then we—that is, we the elders, roughly ages 30 and up, who can remember a time before the latest disruption—are the precious and special last bearers of humanity.

It’s flattering, but it’s untrue. We aren’t special. We just grew up doing things the way we learned to do them. Now we see the next generation acting differently, and we cannot imagine it working. We forget that this is how it’s always been. We forget that we experimented as well. We turned out okay.

Turkle Claim #4: Selfies stop us from seriousness

We have every reason to believe that President Obama revered Nelson Mandela and thought deeply about his relationship with what Mandela stood for. But when he took a selfie at Mandela’s memorial service last Tuesday, he showed us how he, too, lives in our culture of documentation. It is easy to understand how he, like most of us, did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie.

Obama took that selfie—a groupie, really—two hours into a four-hour ceremony that was full of dancing and music. He’d written and given a speech. He’d reflected, and he’d shared his thoughts. He’d surely allowed himself "uninterrupted time of reverie," either at the service or before. But now he was sharing an experience with those near him, and that experience was made possible by a camera.

Turkle imagines that any interaction with technology somehow negates all the time spent doing other things. She also imagines that we must devote ourselves in only one way to every task: At a dinner table, we are only serious and focused on conversation; at a memorial service, we are only mournful. That is not the way we live. It’s never been the way we live. And that’s the beauty of technology, which Turkle cannot see: We can use it for all purposes, to express joy and sadness, to have long conversations or send short texts. We made it. It is us.

Turkle Claim #5: The young will show us the way

I see the most hope in young people who have grown up with this technology and begin to see its cost. … A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: "Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you." A 14-year-old boy reflects: "Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that." The selfie, like all technology, causes us to reflect on our human values. This is a good thing because it challenges us to figure out what they really are.

These quotes aren’t from teenagers who "begin to see [the] cost" of technology. They have grown up knowing nothing else. The change already came. What these kids are expressing is the joint frustration and wonder of youth, and nobody’s giving up their iPhones.

There is a danger in inaccurately interpreting the effect of technology on kids. The journal Pediatrics displayed this in 2011, when it triggered a media storm by suggesting that Facebook causes depression. In fact, says Massachusetts psychologist John Grohol, who sits on the board of the journal Cyberpsychology, the studies showed no such thing: They just showed that depressed kids use Facebook, as do happy kids. But the Sherry Turkles of the world only trumpet the negative. "So if a patient comes in complaining of depression, the doctor could say, ‘You need to cut back on Facebook,’" Grohol says.

That doctor would have identified the wrong culprit, because he was convinced it was the obvious one. That’s the danger of listening to Turkle.

Is it good that a dad pays more attention to Google than his daughter? No, of course not. That guy should put down his phone. But we should be careful about distinguishing between actual problems and perceived ones. The phone is not, by itself, the problem. In fact, if that dad closed his Google app, opened his camera app, and took a selfie with his 14-year-old daughter, I bet she’d be thrilled.

They’d have had a moment. Turkle wouldn’t recognize it.

[Image: Flickr user Sarah Van Quickelberge]

Add New Comment


  • Quinn Taylor Parker

    Permit me to say that you have obviously missed the point of her article. "Ooo selfies are bad, she doesn't know what she's talking about" is a rather narrow view of the greater subject she's talking about. Technology is changing us rapidly, but saying 'change isn't always bad' doesn't inversely mean that change is usually good...? Turkle isn't insinuating that 'technology somehow negates all the time spent doing other things', she's insinuating that we're not all as good at achieving balance in our lives as President Obama, and millions of people actually, yes, do spend way to much time online! Can you believe it?! Personally this view resonates with me. It is so depressing to see, at the moment anybody has to wait for anything, them whip out their mobile devices and scrollscrollscrolltypetypetypescroll. There is something UNQUESTIONABLY lost in our conscious selves when people cease just watching the world go by and thinking, imagining, remembering, whatever. Also I agree with Sousa.

  • The Truth Hurts

    I CALL BULLSHIT. Google tracks you. Facebook watches you. Selfies make you desperate.

  • closetothetruth

    this is a great article!!!! it proves that we human beings can and do never make mistakes, build or sell things that don't work the way we want, sell products that harm more than they help, etc. history is full of warnings about thalidomide, DDT exterminating falcons, and so on, all proven wrong.

    just as a point of fact, if one were actually to read Turkle's work, it would be extremely hard to assert that she "only trumpets then negative"--arguably she has two entire books (and more) that go out of their way to trumpet the positive. but it's better just to assert that any criticism is necessarily wrong, because people have sometimes been wrong in the past. by the way, keep using that antibacterial soap and taking those multivitamins--they're doing wonders for you.

  • George MacDonald

    This was a brilliant post. Hah. I had Turkle's book in my Amazon queue for a weeks now and I took it off earlier this afternoon well before I read this. I just wasn't interested in reading how technology that has clearly made me more efficient and connected with more people is in fact ruining the fabric of who I am.

    It just sounds like scaremongering!

    Reading this post made me feel better. I knew I had no interest in combatting technology.

    I remember not long ago my parents told me that my generation would be a generation that "didn't know how to read a map." I wasn't even sure what it was supposed to imply! Obviously we would have to go places and use some sort of map. Were frustrated days with paper maps so integral to the experience of life that the next generation should really take the time to study a paper map without the aid of a computer? This is really, really silly.

    And I like your argument comparing a selfie to a signature. You're right. I would prefer a selfie with a celebrity than a signature. I never understood why a signature was so interesting to people.

    Excellent article. This is a point for selfies.

  • Damian Madray

    I think what both sides often miss is that "too much of one thing is good for nothing".

    I found your first point quite week and so admittedly didn't bother reading the rest.

    Why can't we achieve a healthy balance. I actually think that it's more meaningful to have a conversation with Aziz instead of a transactional relationship. It means we view each other as products, products we can use to fulfill our self-centered needs. Are we really trying to capture a memento or excited about the fact we can post it to our Instagram, receives likes and praises from our friends. But that's ok. Let's just try to make it out some sort of positive change because it's not. If that's the best tech can do for us then we're clearly focusing on solving the wrong problems.

    I also don't think that it's a 'one size fits all' type of argument from both sides of the camp. But more importantly, I don't think we can downplay the cons tech has hand on human social interactions nor can we downplay the pros. Technology is re-engineering social interactions and that's great. That's change! However, the basis of a 'selfie' being social seems to be a reach.

    Another thing... 'sefile' is a self portrait and so in Obama's case, he was taking a group photo. If that is a 'selfie' then what the hell is so new about this anyway... it's been around since we've had digital cameras.

    I do think it's worth keeping a close eye on this because humans weren't designed for the type of social change tech brings with it. This means we're in unknown territory.

  • Jocelyn McLean

    I haven't read Turkle's book (though I have been meaning to ever since I read a very thoughtful interview with Aziz Ansari earlier this year), but that story about Ansari's interactions with fans made me cringe. I've never approached a celebrity, BECAUSE I assume the encounter would be nothing more meaningful than a photo - so what's the point? What's the value of meeting someone when there's no genuine interaction or connection?

    I don't see a problem with capturing moments on camera. What I'm starting to see is people artificially creating moments for a photo opportunity. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but we should be questioning whether or not we're sacrificing anything in the process.

  • JT

    I mean you have GOT to be kidding me. You have GOT to be. Selfies have become a plague on the land. There's no better distillation of narcissism and desperate need for constant attention (because of the social media sharing aspect, without that these would just be private photo collections.)

    I thought the Selfies at Funerals thing was supposed to be mocking these kids or at least saying WTF in a world-weary, deadpan way.

    Then I get to this:

    "The funeral-selfie takers on my Tumblr may have seemed disrespectful, but consider, for a moment, that most were expressing themselves in the most genuine way they thought to. Childhood is solipsistic; we see the world through our own experience of it. The selfie gave these kids a moment to quite literally look at themselves in their environment, and reflect on where they are and what they are thinking. It provided what Turkle claims it stole away."

    HAHAHA OMG... wow man..

    Something tells me you take a LOT of selfies and her article hit a sore spot. No number of fancy phrasing can hide that, bud.

  • Anthony Reardon

    No way, Jason put together an awesome article! Terrific historical examples at the end. Sufficient disclaimers across the board.

    I think he actually presented a pretty balanced picture of both sides of the argument; hers and his rebuttal. It is a continuum. There are probably more examples of people abusing technology at the expense of situation appropriate behavior, but it's not the technology that's causing that, and especially long stretch to suggest the culture of taking selfies has anything to do with it. She does do a pretty good job, but I like Jason's take on it.

    As a consultant, one of the core points I am always making is it's not about the technology; it's about the people that use it. The implicit value is to use technology to support more meaningful connection, more intimate relationships, and more reflection on our lives. I will advocate the best aspirations to this are achieving the same experiences you would have without the technology, to really live life and do things in person. The predisposition with technology is where people go wrong, and I think Turkle makes the hurdle on that. However, that predisposition is a conscious prioritization in most respects, and by that same logic you would still have people tuning you out, not acknowledging your presence in a dynamic, or superimposing their viewpoint in the context of a conversation- even without the assistance of device. In that same sense, it's not the technology; it's about the people that use it.

    We just went over this in depth on Fast Company with the whole discussion on Apple's Made In California ad. It showed all these people using their iPads and iPhones for things like capturing a kiss, reading a book with your kid, and so on. A lot of people were aghast this technology is running interference on activities where you should be focused on the moment and people and not the technology. Those same people miss the point of how technology can potentially enhance those same experiences... quite conceivably for even better outcomes toward the same purposes. Plenty of people do get that point. You could also say there is somewhat of a conflict between the hype for technology in the popular media, and the backlash against it. Both arguments have extremist opinions to offer, and thus both deserve scrutiny. Jason's argument appears to be more balanced than polarizing in that regard.

    A highlight of this was Obama's selfie at Mandela's lifetime celebration. I was watching this live in the middle of the night, and all the major reporters covering this from the U.S. were astounded at first that it was a party. Really just a culture shock of sort, because what you were looking at was the highest honors that could be given in that culture. From a universal perspective, I instantly related, and could only hope for the same kind of thing at my own wake. To be solemn in that scenario would have sent the wrong message, it would have countered the idea and the significance of celebration, joy, and being there living out the "dream" this figure represented. Yet there was a huge backlash of criticism and negative attention for the selfie as though it were terribly inappropriate and distasteful for a someone in the President's position to do. Have to disagree. Aside from stripping down to join everyone else dancing and drumming in the rain, I thought it was quite an eloquent gesture to do the selfie in that situation, and reflected credit on both the President and country in that regard.

    Not doing a selfie when the opportunity presented in that situation- especially because of some "church lady" like predisposition against technology- that would have been the real embarrassment IMHO. So right on Jason.

    Best, Anthony

  • nicholas s. strate

    Your Selfies at Funerals tumblr example is as insubstantial as Turkle's Obama-selfie example. Ultimately, you're both asserting the same point: that technology is changing our communication behaviors. The act of composing a tweet, for instance, requires a completely new series of thought processes than we had 10 years ago.

    Turkle's essay - far from "dangerous" - is not prescribing some idealized way of life, but rather asking us to consider the impact that technological change has on our interpersonal relationships. What's wrong with that?

  • Don

    You're being needlessly harsh on Turkle. In the article, she's just asking us to think about selfies and maybe restore a little balance to our lives.

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  • ben_marko

    This was almost hilarious, if it didn't seem like so much venting. You just spent an entire page venting. She actually makes a good point, the one you so glaringly missed. We spend too much time connected, and not enough time getting out to know each other. That is pretty much it. You just trolled onto it, got worked up, and probably spun out this article in a matter of minutes. It's just an opinion, and hers wasn't personal. Yours was. Grow up.

  • Dr. Z.

    This all boils down to change... Some people adapt, others are slower to it. But the bottom line is change. My concern would be does this change in our communication make us dependent on the technology to communicate (i.e. meme's replacing conversations)? Also, we've experienced a massive amount of change in the time from our oldest living members and the future holds more change for our newborns learning the current world around them. Does this make each generation unable to fully communicate with each other? Are we dissolving a foundation of cross-generational communication? How much pressure does it put on an individual to relearn communication, as it develops? And with all this change, when we place emotional value into something, then to have it change rapidly, does that disturb our emotional stability, leading perhaps to a growing rate of bipolar disorder?

    "The U.S. ranked higher in every category of bipolar disorder as did, in general, other high-income countries. One exception was Japan, which had a lifetime prevalence of 0.7%."

    High income=technologically advanced. Why is Japan the exception? Could it be their traditions and culture? Does the US have such a high rate of emotional instability because of our technology or are Americans just more inclined to emotionally invest in such wavering things?

    I don't have the answers and neither do you. You could listen to the "scaremongering" as a warning, or you could say its propaganda and throw all caution to the wind. So just do what ever the fuck you want and learn from it. That's called "Life"