This summer I learned I would be among the first PhD candidates for a new doctoral program in sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. What follows is the writing sample from my application, where I was asked to discuss my research interests.
Between 2004 and 2006 I spent most of my time researching what would become my first book, Blood & Volume: Inside New York’s Israeli Mafia (Barricade, 2007). Much of that research consisted of conducting long, in-depth interviews with Ron Gonen, a career criminal and a former member of the syndicate that operated in New York City in the 1980’s and who, at the time I first met him, was approaching his fifteenth year in the federal witness protection program.
Ron and I would speak on the phone for up to four hours at a stretch. When trust between reporter and subject had been established, he let me spend a long weekend in the flyover-country city he had been relocated to in 1990. Later we went – perhaps foolishly – to New York City so Ron could show me the figurative and literal scenes of the crimes.
“It must be cool, spending time with a guy like that,” said friends who were working on more mundane thesis topics for the MFA in creative nonfiction writing program at Goucher College.
It was cool, but it was also exhausting in an annoying sense. Ron is – and he will admit this readily – a narcissist.
Shortly after arriving in New York City in 1982 he wanted to go to a couples-only, cocaine-fueled swingers party on the Upper East Side. Ron hired a prostitute to accompany him instead of bringing his wife as he could not, he reasoned, bear to watch his wife have sex with other men. He sold cocaine to friends who ultimately became addicted and, in a few cases, overdosed. He broke the fingers of another close friend – one by one – who owed him money. He stole nearly $100,000 from a man he once thought of as a brother. His narcissism ultimately lead him to commit the ultimate underworld sin: Ron became a rat and testified against his friends to avoid stiffer penalties.
For Ron, feeling he was more important than his victims (or his family and friends, for that matter) as a classic narcissist would made hurting those people much less complicated.
In his new, law-abiding days his narcissism was more subdued but still a constant presence: he outright ignored my requests to open a window when he smoke cigarettes on our drives through his new hometown. He made me keep him company during a poorly attended open house in his new life as a realtor and making me drive 40 blocks through Manhattan in rush hour traffic because he couldn’t wait a few hours for traffic to die down to see his old, Upper East Side apartment. He interupted our interviews to take long phone calls without a nod of apology, and often ignored the fact that I was trying to conduct an interview if a friend or attractive woman stopped by the table we were seated at. When I started promoting the book, Ron would often imply to interviewers he was the author. When it was released, he took a stack of copies to his favorite watering hole and signed “his” book for friends.
The more time I spent with Ron, the more I thought about other criminals and alleged criminals I had written about in my 15 years as a journalist. They ranged from tax cheats to corrupt politicians. They included dozens of self-proclaimed innocent men in jails and prisons, half a dozen convicts who claimed they knew who stole paintings from Boston’s Gardner Museum in 1990 and large-scale dealers of every narcotic imaginable. As I thought about more than a decade’s worth of interviews – some one-time, 10-minute phone conversations, others that covered several hours or even stretched out over the course of several days – I saw a similar pattern. Most of the people I had known who viewed crime as a profession had a sense of self-importance – something that may have been called “confidence” in a more legitimate profession – that bordered on narcissism.
“I always thought Ron would have been successful no matter what he did,” Gonen’s American-born wife and 1980’s New York City party girl Honey Tessman told me. “He had that mind – he could have been a doctor, a lawyer – but this is what he chose and this is what he ended up being good at.”
For her part, Tessman was a key player in Gonen’s New York drug dealing operation and narcissistic in her own right; after Blood & Volume was released she refused to speak with me for more than a year because she felt the book had focussed too much on her husband and not enough on her.
Facebook, Twitter and a New Kind Of Narcissism
Blood & Volume suffered a fate many books have faced: great reviews that do not translate into stellar sales, meaning by June 2007 I was stuck with a closet full of remainder copies and an urgent need for gainful employment. I ended up taking a series of jobs as a tech journalist, arriving on my beat just in time to cover the rise of social media, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.
Within a year, social media went from being a seldom-heard term used solely by early adopters to a buzzword. Just as proponents of the new technology were pointing to the election of Barack Obama and its use of social media as an organizing tool as proof positive that the medium would open up a better, more connected world, Facebook was supplanting MySpace as the online social network of choice. Then, as now, the tech press has been reluctant to ask questions about the downside of this communications revolution.
Forget, for a moment, the very real and valid points about privacy concerns, identity theft, cyber bullying and a slew of other concerns that have been raised piecemeal by the mainstream media looking for an attention-grabbing headline. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with our new, social-media backed way of communicating is that it has the potential to awaken the inner narcissist in all of us. Does that awaken the inner criminal, scam artist and philanderer as well? Is not seeing your victims the same as not caring about your victims? And, at the very least, does this new way of communication, where people would rather text than talk, fundamentally change how we value and utilize relationships within society? Is the technology evolving so fast that social norms can’t keep up? Ultimately, I want to center my research around the idea that the new, technologically-enhanced ability to maintain more and more relationships ultimately cheapens those relationships and has the individual valuing the self more than the society.
As a journalist I have been, by and large, limited to the anecdotal nature of my qualitative research. But in my interviews with hundreds of people who create and use social media platforms, I have seen alarming trends and problems that would benefit from sociological inquiry.
Up until the summer of 2012, when I was preparing a course on Cyberculture and Digital Media for students at Bridgewater State University (where I have been a guest visiting lecturer since 2007), I saw it as a question best left for Communication Studies Departments. But as I planned lectures, led focus groups with students about how they used Facebook, Twitter, SMS text messaging and other forms of social media, I started to see a pattern: there was an assumption – sometimes right but often wrong – that the traditional rules of offline social networks carried over to online social media. I started to see social media and its implications on society and culture, as well as communication, as an inquiry best accomplished through sociological research like the course of inquiry I am proposing as a candidate for the PhD program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Quantity, Not Quality, Relationships
Consider, for a moment, statements from Bridgewater State University students I have collected in discussions, interviews and focus groups over the course of the 2012-13 school year:
“I think texting and social media sites isolate people from the real world,” says Taylor, a 20-year-old Communication Studies major who also told me she thinks “texting is the greatest thing in the world.”
“With the amount of time we spend ‘interacting’ with each other on various social media sites, when I stop and think, most of these people I haven’t had an actual conversation with in years, and haven’t seen them in probably a longer time than that,” said Kim, who was enrolled in my Social Media & Journalism class.
“I think that social media and texting has had a negative impact on the personal social skills of some individuals as it is much easier to write to someone over a phone or a computer than it is to talk in person,” Kristen write in an online assignment, while also noting she has more than 500 Facebook friends.
The new technology comes with the promise that it will be easier for us to connect – and stay connected – with other people. But as researchers from Robin Dunbar to Connected authors Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler have repeatedly shown, more relationships means less time devoted to maintaining any one of those relationships. That, in turn, dilutes the quality of those relationships.
It’s why you can easily have more than 1,000 Facebook “friends,” but you would never have that many friends within your offline social network. People immersed in online social networks (including, to a certain extent, myself), typically report feeling overwhelmed. The people I have interviewed see nothing unusual about checking social media sites before they get out of bed each morning and as the last thing they do each night, yet they also report high levels of distraction, an inability to focus in one-on-one conversations and reduced levels of empathy. Despite the high levels of stress that accompany the always-on lifestyle, they seem resigned to this fate.
“I probably send hundreds of texts every day, which sounds pretty ridiculous when you think about it,” Kristen concedes. “But this is what this world has come to.”
In my Cyberculture & Digital Media class I show students a brief documentary on Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist whose controversial experiments showed people can dissociate from their actions and see selves as an instrument of another person’s will. I was also hoping students would see that it was easier for people to mistreat a person they did not know and could not see or fully interact with, as was the belief of the people who served as subjects in Milgram’s research on conformity. Each semester the film sparks an interesting discussion among students when they are asked to consider social media in relation to Milgram’s findings.
“I think social media is even worse,” one student said after considerable personal reflection on the discussion last semester. “At least with Milgram, those people could hear the screaming. With social media, you can’t always hear the person screaming on the other end.”
I approach my doctoral research working with the idea that the quantity of relationships now possible thanks to digital social media has diluted the quality and strength of those relationships and, by extension, has made it easier for people to act unethically or even criminally. Ron Gonen was able to commit horrible crimes because he felt he was more important than his victims and the people he cared about. Does an inability to forge close ties thanks to social media make it easier for otherwise normal, law-abiding people to drop their morales when they go online? Are we desensitised to the notion that Facebook “friends” are indeed real people?
I am not a Luddite. On the contrary, I embrace and exhaustively explore most new technologies and believe the biggest benefit for readers of my work as a technology journalist has been the ability to demystify technology and show how it can change people’s lives for the better. But all of my work has been driven by the belief that good journalists – and good researchers – kick the figurative tires of every new idea and every new technology, asking questions and considering the potential downsides. One of the principles that was constantly in mind when I worked as a tech journalist, and one I hope to still hold close as I work as a sociologist studying technology’s impact on society is the first of historian Melvin Kranzberg’s six laws of technology:
“Technology is neither good nor bad; but it is also never neutral.”