Digital Media & Culture: Collaborative Essay Collection 2018/Always-on Culture/Research Question 1:/To what extent do we agree with Sherry Turkle's argument that digital connections offer only an illusion of companionship?

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To what extent do we agree with Sherry Turkle's argument that digital connections offer only an illusion of companionship?[edit]

According to Sherry Turkle, “Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” [1] (p.1) To what extent do you agree with this statement?


In Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together she discusses the concept of always-on culture and states how digital connections offer the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”.[1] Turkle continues this discussion in her TedTalk “Connected, but alone?” and states that these digital connections give us 3 gratifying fantasies: (1) we can put our attention where we want, (2) we will always be heard, and (3) never have to be alone. Always-on culture is a recent development that has unfolded in our society. It is the expectation that everyone must always be connected to the Internet, regardless of the social context.[2] By exploring several concepts closely related to always-on culture, we will discuss whether we agree with Turkle’s argument that digital connections provides companionship, but not real friendship.

Main Concepts[edit]

Tethered Self[edit]

Friends on Mobile Phones [3]

One of the concepts Sherry Turkle devised in relation to always-on culture is the notion of the ‘tethered self’. In her article ‘Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self’, Turkle describes the tethered self as a state in which we are constantly connected, or tethered, to our devices and the people we communicate with through them.[4] Technology has created a space in which we can live in both the online and offline world. Our activities may not be centred around the Internet, but there is the assumption that we are still connected to the network and are available for contact (pp. 72).[2]

Turkle describes how the tethered self has manifested in the offline world – she met with young people who exhibited the behaviours of people tethered to the Internet. These young people talked about situations in which they were waiting for a notification to appear on their phone, even putting their safety on the line for a connection, such as checking their phones while driving or getting into accidents while walking (pp. 171).[5] The idea of the tethered self suggests that people are starting to prioritise online connections over real physical interactions.

This would suggest that because we value online connections over those in the real world, they are more ‘real’. Sherry Turkle explains that our lives are different on the network, and there is a difference between “what is true and what is “true here,” true in simulation.” Digital connections are divided by a screen and a physical distance; these connections therefore eliminate the intimacy that accompanies friendships in the offline world.

Lack of Commitment

As Turkle explains, virtual friendships do not require the same level of commitment as those in real life (pp. 153).[6] This is the case because we only pay partial attention to the conversation at hand. Our attention is always divided: for example, while we pay attention to someone offline, we are constantly aware that our devices may receive a notification or a call, and so, we never give our full attention. Our attention may also be split to multiple interactions online, therefore, there is an artificiality to digital connections as they lack the attention and intimacy that friendships require. They also require less commitment because they are conditioned with the expectation that these friendships are disposable. If you don’t agree with someone, you can block them. There is also the phenomenon of “ghosting”: the act of ending a relationship by withdrawing all mobile communication without explanation.[7] The rules of connection are different on online platforms and therefore, it suggests a simpler form of friendship that is not replicated in real life.

Online Identity

Furthermore, on social media users tend to present the best versions of themselves or the person that they want to be. Online identity is performative; social media is intended to be used to share our lives, but we predominately use it to project the events in our day that we assume people will like. This builds the foundation for online connections that are not based on reality.

Virtual conversations are also defined by a kind of shorthand – we will speak in short phrases or emoticons that quickly communicate what one is feeling. These conversations lack the complexity of genuine conversation; they create a compacted version of friendship.

Additionally, online companionships tend to be defined by dependency. Through social media, one will communicate their feelings and look to others to validate those feelings. This in turn becomes a desire for continual validation – as Turkle explains, “I have a feeling/Get me a friend” becomes “I want to have a feeling/Get me a friend” [4]. As we are constantly tethered to our devices, we are never truly alone. This eliminates the opportunity for self-reflection that is important for developing a sense of self.

Levels of Friendship - Goffman's Theoretical Concept of Framing[edit]

In the digital world, relationships are constantly being created, developed and sustained through various online and offline interactions. In particular, individuals use social media to connect with one another. For example, people use Facebook to connect with colleagues, friends, and family. However, the term ‘Facebook friends’ refers to acquaintances with whom one is only in contact through social media. (pp.102) [8] The term carries the implication that ‘friendship’ of such a kind, even under the label ‘friend’, is a lower category of friendship than ‘real friends’. This shows that social media platforms including Facebook allow individuals to create friends but those ‘friends’ can be organized into categories based on their closeness. As Miller argues in How the World Changed Social Media: Online and offline relationships “for a good friend social media is likely to help cultivate and enhance that friendship, whereas, if there is no bonding in the first place, being friends on Facebook may make little or no difference” (pp.103) [8] Meaning that people can connect with complete strangers but they will still question their level of friendship with them. Within the always-on culture, people also use social media to find intimate relationships as well. Many people use dating apps and services like Tinder, Snapchat and Bumble to connect with potential partners instead of having a real face to face conversation. Overall, social media accounts offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendships.


On any given day, we are exposed to an unimaginable amount of information. This can range from the physical environment around us, how we are feeling (emotional intellect), and not to mention the never-ending amount of information that can be found online. How do we deal with all of this infoglut? ‘Infoglut’ is a term used by Mark Andrejevic, meaning “an unimaginably unmanageable amount of information is available to anyone with Internet access”[9] (pp. 2). We do not have to go in search of the information that is at our disposal online, it comes to us. We see it through television, news, Tweets, texts, blogs, etc.

The overwhelming amount of information might not be a bad thing. Andrejevic mentions in his book how the Internet has made an “unprecedented amount of information available to a growing population of the populace, while also providing it with access to content creation and distribution tools” [9] (pp. 2). People can choose to be an active participant in the information and contribute to it.

It can be overwhelming to people to have all of this information thrown at them. How do people make sense of it all, and how do they choose what is relevant to them? They could make the conscious decision to back away from social media and other digital connections. However, by doing this, the risk their online ‘relationships’ and step away from the always-on culture. The infoglut only enables and encourages the always-on culture because there is so much information to be a part of.


Facebook currently has over 2.13 billion users across the globe, [10] and this number is growing every day. This is just one example of a social media platform that appears to never fail in growing larger each year. However, even in the always-on culture we live in today, it is becoming more common recently for users to disconnect from their profiles or take a break from social media, and other digital connections.

Pepita Hesselberth [11] goes into depth on the issues surrounding the “right to disconnect”, introducing the article with the proposed ban in Germany on the use of work related communicative devices outside of work at two leading car manufacturing companies: Volkswagen and BMW. The author highlights three key concerns in the discussion relating to:

  1. digital labour
  2. the unease of the concept of an always-on culture, and
  3. the need to disconnect (pp.2)

Hesselberth explains in the article how although these concerns have been looked at individually, there is little research into how all three inter-relate. Digital labour can be a reason people opt to disconnect from digital conections. Christian Fuchs is one academic who is highly concerned with the idea of “playbour”, the concept of users of the internet working for free whenever they use the internet. Fuchs argues the point that because we live in an always-on culture, the “factory” is not just limited to the home and workplace, but “[…] the factory and workplace surveillance are also in all in-between spaces” (pp.118). [12] It can be argued that for some, the idea of withholding digital relationships with others whilst carrying out “unpaid work” is immoral, and therefore digital connections are not comparable to the same levels of companionship or friendship as “real life” connections.

Types of Disconnectivity

Hesselberth [11] goes on to explain how the concept of disconnectivity is difficult to measure, as individuals who disengage from digital connections often do so partially, i.e. removing the Facebook app from your phone but still able to access the website on a computer, or choosing not to use a mobile device but still using a laptop. As well as depending on medium specificity, it can be situational to when and where the disengagement exists, the author uses the examples of only connecting during work/not during work. Lastly disengagement can depend on the specific purpose of the digital connection, i.e. not agreeing with the morals of privacy on specific online platforms (pp.4).

It is also important to note that there are different extremity levels of which people can disconnect. Some people may choose to take a break, with the conscious decision to return to the digital connection after a certain amount of time; some may choose to lessen the time spent on the digital medium; and some may choose to simply refuse the digital connection (media refusal).

Media Refusal

Media refusal is described by Portwood-Stacer [13] as “[…] a term I use to describe the practice in which people consciously choose not to engage with some media technology or platform” (pp.1046). However, the term is not specific to just social media, but can be applied to all forms of media. The author continues to argue on the topic of Facebook, and how media refusal can be used to send a message/make a point for other users about something they don’t agree with on/about the social networking site.

Why People Disconnect

People disconnect from digital connections for a mass of different reason, some being: an attempt to disengage with any fake news circulating; disagreement with the morals of the medium i.e. the concept of data mining and surveillance within social media sites, or the concept of the platform’s business model; to use their time in a more effective way; and to attempt to improve mental wellbeing.

In the process of attempting to disconnect, or disconnecting unintentionally, from any given digital connection, “Disconnectivity Anxiety (DA)” can often be noticed. Dr Jim Taylor [14] defines this term as “a persistent and unpleasant condition characterized by worry and unease caused by periods of technological disconnection from others”. Taylor elaborates on this term, relating the use of an always-on culture to the use of a highly addictive drug, where withdrawal symptoms can be seen when disconnection occurs - the connection itself representing the ‘drug’. The author continues and explains how being disconnected was once the standard, but nowadays it is unusual to be disconnected for a prolonged period of time. It can be argued that because of this disconnectivity anxiety, individual’s find it difficult to imagine a life without the companionship of some form of digital connection.

Internet of Things[edit]

We are living in an ever-more connected society. We have digital connections such as social media to be active in the always-on culture. Now, our devices are also connected to us. Our phones are able to track someone’s location or count our steps, cars can now drive themselves, and we have home audio systems such as Alexa that can turn something - such as the television - on and off at the sound of our voice.

This variety of internet-connected devices is called the Internet of Things. According to Bunz, and Meikle, “The internet of things describes the many uses and processes that result from giving a network address to a thing and fitting it with sensors” [15]. This can be anything from a mobile phone to household appliances.

Tech Takeover

To some, the idea of everyday objects being connected to a network is a frightening. In an episode of the TV series Mr. Robot, a woman’s internet-connected devices go out of control. She didn’t know how to turn anything off because it was all connected throughout the walls of the smart home. This is a fictional example, however, more recently there had been reports of Alexa laughing for no reason. Alexa is a smart speaker that listens for commands and then does what it is being asked. Recently, Alexa was mistaking commands, such as ‘turn off the lights’ for ‘laugh’ [16]. It would frighten owners into thinking that their technology was taking over and developing a 'mind' of its own. However, this does not mean that Alexa, or other smart devices are taking over. It is simply a reminder that this technology is still advancing and needs more work to be fully functioning properly.

'Smart' Companions?

Do these smart devices offer the illusion of companionship, as Turkle argues? Some might think of Alexa as a companion because she can listen and perform commands. Others might think she is no more than a robot who has been programmed to respond to a user’s voice. Nonetheless, Alexa is no more than a speaker who has been programmed by humans, for humans. She is not a true companion, in that she cannot understand a human’s complex and intimate emotions. For example, she may be able to turn on our favorite song, but she does not know or understand why that song is our favorite like a friend in real life would.

There are many pros and cons to the Internet of Things. Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, addresses such effects:

“It will have widespread beneficial effects, along with widespread negative effects. There will be conveniences and privacy violations. There will be new ways for people to connect, as well as new pathways towards isolation, misanthropy, and depression.” [17].

The Internet of Things is still a developing area of interest. As it evolves, we may see more technological advances to human interaction and communication, or our face-to-face communication will continue to dissolve.

Sociable Robot[edit]

Another advancement in the Internet of Things is the 'sociable' robot. Robots have become some sort of replacement for humans and human interactions and intimacy. Sherry Turkle says “As sociable robots propose themselves as substitutes for people, new networked devices offer us machine-mediated relationships with each other, another kind of substitution.” [1] (pp. 3). Robots allow people to feel like they are in control. It is easy to have a companionship with a robot without having the demands of friendship. A person can talk to a robot as if it is a friend, but just as easily set it aside when they get bored or uninterested.

Sociable Robot [18]

Robots as Companions?

Robots are a perfect example to address Turkle's notion that digital connections offer only the illusion of friendship. She addresses this in her book, Alone Together, "We don’t seem to care what these artificial intelligences “know” or “understand” of the human moments we might “share” with them.” [1] (pp.10). Human beings have a desire to feel wanted and needed, and when we don't get these desires fulfilled by another human, we reach out to technology. This can be by creating an avatar to live in a virtual world, seeking validation through online connections such as social media, or turning to robots to get the feelings of companionship.

There has been increasing discussion of robots becoming suitable romantic partners. However, skeptics such as Sherry Turkle disagree with the notion that robots can provide true love and an authentic relationship with a human. “A love relationship involves coming to savor the surprises and the rough patches of looking at the world from another’s point of view, shaped by history, biology, trauma, and joy. Computers and robots do not have these experiences to share.” [1] (pp.6). Robots might be able to provide a shallow illusion of companionship, but they are not able to provide a true relationship that is only available from another human being who has shared similar life experiences.

Robots as Companions for the Elderly

Creating robots that mimic the nurturing companionship of a nurse for the elderly in nursing homes is undergoing research. Many elderly people in nursing homes only share the company of part-time nurses and/or other residents. For some elderly residents, robot companions could be very beneficial to their health and well-being. Although robots are not able to -or at least not yet able to- provide the same care as nurses, they are able to provide comfort, much like an emotional support animal.

There are doubts as well about robots providing companionship to the elderly. Metzler, Lewis, and Pope and others address this doubt in their essay Could robots become authentic companions in nursing care? They question whether robots could replace nurses as both companions and caretakers. "If the intended role for these artefacts is to perform nursing assistive tasks and furnish companionship, then might some human nurses not wonder whether the ultimate purpose of the machines really is to assist or to replace?" [19]

More research is needed in the area of robots being suitable companions for the elderly in nursing homes. It can be argued both ways as to whether or not they can be companions capable of providing emotional, mental, and physical support. While robots can provide companionship to the elderly, it is still only an illusion of real friendship.


To conclude, there are many aspects of digital culture which contribute to the notion that digital connections only provide an “illusion of companionship”.[1] The Internet has provided a platform for people to connect, however these online friendships lack the intimacy and commitment of offline friendships. Although, the authenticity of these connections can be questioned, they are ubiquitous in the always-on culture that exists today.

Word Count: 3098


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