Phantom Community: What’s the Power of Talk in a Digital Age?

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“Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn to have a conversation.”[1]

This is just one of a number of eye-opening statements made by high school and college-aged students in the new book by renowned MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle provides a sprawling and insightful analysis of how digital media are reshaping our lives as individuals, in relationships, and as a broader society. But unlike other commentators who have explored these same trends, Turkle builds a compelling case for what really seems to be at stake: as we lose conversation, we lose community.

Turkle addresses this crucial connection between conversation and community by describing how “We have moved from being in community to having a sense of community.” A digital “sense” of connectedness is replacing or impeding our ways of “being” incarnate (“in the flesh”) with one another.[2]

The result adds up to something we might call phantom community.

Like the phenomenon known as a phantom limb, Turkle describes digital media as producing a sensation of attachment and connection that dully feels like the real thing but is not. It is something that persists as a person acclimates his or herself to living without what had once been taken for granted as always available.

For adults, digital media has disruptively demanded our attention away, like a stubborn toddler tugging at a sleeve and crying, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” But what is fascinating about Turkle’s latest research is how she sees this adult distractedness having an increasingly noxious effect on today’s young people. Whereas digital media seems to have damaged the way adults interact with one another, it is now making it seemingly impossible for young people to learn how to have relationships in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, Turkle argues, we are in the midst of a “crisis of empathy.” Middle schools are now adapting their curricula to try to teach emotional intelligence at a very basic level. As one teacher describes it, “[student] friendships seem based on what students think someone else can do for them … kids have a sense that friendships are one-sided. It is a place for them to broadcast. It is not a place for them to listen. And there isn’t an emotional level.”[3]

Similarly, Turkle describes a study that found “a 40 percent drop in empathy among college students in the past twenty years … a decline its authors suggested was due to students having less direct face-to-face contact with each other.”[4]

This is important because—as scientific research, the arts, and philosophy all agree—empathy functions as the fundamental distinction between a group of people and a community. We form into communities not by means of proximity or mere connectedness but rather because we know each other and care about one another. We have done the self-reflective work of deciding that we belong and are invested in the lives of a particular group of others. Riding on a public transit bus is belonging to a group of people; riding in a bus on the way to a church youth group retreat is belonging to a community.

Reclaiming Conversation presents us with both an invitation and a challenge as Christians who place special value on the importance of community and communion with one another. The type of phantom community described throughout the book is an alluring but ultimately unsatisfying (not to mention unhealthy) substitute for the kind of table fellowship we find in scripture—and that so many of us have experienced and enjoyed together. Turkle’s research and reflections challenge us to consider how we might safeguard our church communities from weakening or decaying like so many other facets of life addressed by the book, including education, work, romance, and even family relationships. That is our challenge.

Our invitation comes from the many young people interviewed as part of Turkle’s research. Summarizing these conversations, she writes: “Recently I see an encouraging sign: young people’s discontent.”[5]

As staples like authentic community and invigorating conversation seem to become more and more elusive, young people are beginning to crave, if not covet, these remnants from a pre-digital world. One 2015 study on young people’s digital media usage found that just 36 percent of teens enjoy using social media “a lot,” which was significantly lower than listening to music or watching television.[6] There is an increasingly noticeable disconnect between how much young people are using digital media and how much they actually enjoy using digital media. 

So often our approach in churches, particularly in youth ministry, is to grasp at the latest trends in an attempt to be relevant. But what seems abundantly clear in Reclaiming Conversation is that today’s young people are searching and yearning for something radically countercultural against their world of phantom community. They want to feel and experience true community for themselves.

As a group of fourteen-year-old girls explains: “memories don’t happen when you get a text. It’s the stories you can tell … the best stuff is friends making mistakes together. That’s how people bond. … It’s not like everything is made to be perfect. It’s like you should make mistakes and you should—well, with friends, it’s good to see their faces.”[7]

[2] p. 173

[3] p. 8

[4] p. 171 (See also: Sara Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 2 (May 1, 2011): 180-98, doi:10.1177/1088868310377395.)

[5] p. 110

[7] p. 174