The limits of communication are not the end of the ethical relation but rather its very beginning…ethical communication has nothing to do with successful completion of communication.
-Emmanuel Levinas ( Pinchevski, 2013: 356)
When I was a student in Japan from 2011 to 2015, the incidence of hikikomori was a much-talked-about issue. The Oxford dictionary defines hikikomori as “(In Japan) the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males.” It was an unprecedented social phenomenon; no one knew what it was and how to deal with it. It is easy to conclude that the hikikomori are outcasts of a fast growing society and that their emergence is a natural outcome of social change. However, such a notion raises too many questions: why did they emerge in this particular point in time? What have influenced young people to be hikikomori? What do they imply about the current society?
What can instantly be identified with the advent of the hikikomori is the use of the mobile phone. When you board a subway train, for instance, you will notice that everyone is focused on their mobile phones. The use of the mobile phone creates a sense of separation among individuals who would otherwise be bound by a common experience – that of being in the same train carriage. This sense of separation and independence seems to be reinforced in contemporary society as well. With increased mobile phone use, people are interacting in ways that tend to compromise social solidarity and lead to separateness and disconnectedness. This study, therefore, examines how people are communicating and interacting in online spaces and what such interaction might reveal about our current society.
A number of sociologists, philosophers, and scholars have attempted to explain the ways by which individuals form bonds with the group or society. I will highlight those that have been forwarded by Emile Durkheim and Irving Goffman. Durkheim (1916) stated that we are connected and bound to others through regular “ritual ceremony.” This creates what he refers to as “collective effervescence.” From his research on an Australian tribe, he observed that members of the tribe held a gathering – Corroboree – to remind themselves of their belonging to the tribe. Through the ritual of Corroboree, people experienced “collective effervescence,” described as “a sort of electricity generated from their closeness which launches them to an extra-ordinary height of exaltation” (Durkheim, 1916:217).
Goffman interpreted Durkheim’s idea of social solidarity on a micro level by looking at ritual ceremony in terms of everyday interactions (Kemper, 1990:130). According to Goffman, “(we)…can afford opportunities for minor ceremonies as long as other persons are present…others present constantly remind the individual that he must keep himself together as a well-demeanored person and affirm the sacred quality of these others” (Goffman, 1956:496). What is consistent in both Durkheim and Goffman’s arguments on group belonging is the moral obligation that “the other” requires of us. The moral implication of the presence of the “other” is the element that bonds people together.
However, can their claim be reflected in a situation where the mobile phone has enabled a whole new way of communicating and connecting with others? How can we interface the use of the mobile phone with their idea of social solidarity? Boyd (2008) elaborates on the peculiarities of interaction in online space. According to Boyd (2008:30), “…physical spaces are limited by space and time, but online, people can connect to one another across great distances and engage with asynchronously produced content over extended periods.” There is thus a need to explore how such a setting brings about certain forms of social solidarity.
In examining how people interact with each other in online and offline space, I looked at the “desire for control” in both spaces. This desire is present, even though we might not be aware of it, when we are in the company of people. Desire is what pushes us to seek our own benefit rather than that of the group, but it is also what reminds us of the presence of “the other.” Similarly, Morgenthau (1946) argued that “desire for power is closely related with selfishness … This lust for power manifests itself as the desire to maintain the range of one’s own person with regard to others … its ultimate essence and aim is in one of those particular references of one person to others … The desire for power concerns… his position among his fellows once his survival has been secured.” Control, on the other hand, is “the perceived ability to significantly alter events” (Burger, 1989:246). Desire for control, therefore, is what people struggle with in order to balance being a member of society and being separate from the other. It is a way of preserving one’s individuality while at the same time remaining safe as part of a group.
For this research, I conducted a two-month participant observation among 20 Korean university students who use two of the most popular online platforms for social networking and chatting: Kakaotalk and Facebook. Both networks have a high number of users worldwide, but they refer to different online spaces and provide varied communication platforms. Based on Hogan’s concept of “addressed media” and “submitted media,” Kakaotalk is a direct network in which the communication takes place directly from one person to the other. The words are sent directly without any subsidiary interruption. Facebook, on the other hand, is a curator-mediated network, in which a connection is made in a rather random manner. This research will make comparisons, not only between interaction in offline and online spaces, but also between direct network (Kakaotalk) and curator-mediated network (Facebook) communication.
As a qualitative study, this research is aimed, not at generalizing, but at understanding the significance of online communication among its users – specifically, my Korean respondents – and what this could possibly reflect about society. I collected data by scanning the talks and posts of the respondents, and conducting interviews with them online. As the goal was to gather data from two platforms, I had to monitor the behavior of the same respondent in both platforms.
Control and the presence of ‘the other’
From a qualitative analysis of the data, one of the reasons for using online platforms is to have “better” conversations with others. I found that people somehow try to ‘escape’ to online spaces because they consider talking online to be easier and more meaningful than talking to the same person offline. Jiwoo’s claims illustrate those of other respondents: “Kakaotalk is the best media for a conversation because there’s less possibility that there be a misunderstanding. The interaction is not immediate and we have enough time to think over what to say. Also the other cannot see my gestures or facial expressions so I can hide my real feelings. So sometimes, I think it’s better to talk through Kakaotalk about a problem on the project that is hard to talk about in face to face.”
The ‘helplessness’ they feel in offline spaces provides a motivation for them to continue, and prefer, interaction online. Another respondent, Suzy, maintains that “in Kakaotalk, I have time to logically organize what I want to say. But in case where we talk face to face with someone or call, we need to answer immediately and I sometimes feel burdensome.”
These responses indicate that those who tend to engage in online social interaction expect that they would have more control over the other. The preference for online communication manifests a higher desire for control because online spaces are constructed to be avenues for such controlled conversations.
Another finding is that the decision to join online conversations depends on perceptions of the presence of others – whether the presence of the other is perceived to be strong or not. On Facebook, any activity tends to be announced on the newsfeed. Facebook’s platform enables people to see whether one “likes” a picture, writes a reply, or posts something. As such, users have to be aware, not only of their intended audience, but also of the unintended audiences that might notice the activity and who might have a response. In Facebook, there is a “third party,” the unintended audience, the semi-public eye – friends of friends, acquaintances, those who are not direct ‘recipients’ of the post. Due to the presence of an unintended audience, one is hesitant to express freely what one would in Kakaotalk, where the audience is limited to those with whom one chooses to have a direct conversation. The public eye in Facebook somehow curtails free expression, since the audience might not understand the message in the same way, which can cause misunderstanding.
Finally, I observed that Facebook, a curator-mediated network, resembles offline space. People interacted in ways similar to those in an offline environment. Users tend to be more careful about what they are posting because as soon as a post is uploaded, the newsfeed flashes it on other people’s screens. There have been cases where people suffered from honest remarks on Facebook. For example, a young woman in the U.K. was fired from her company because she posted a message saying “work is boring.” She thought that Facebook was a private space where she could openly talk about her feelings.
Facebook proves that delineating between online and offline space is meaningless. One’s actions on Facebook can influence his/her life offline, as shown in the above example. The woman who posted online about work was fired. What happens on Facebook is also reality. The presence of the public is clear, making it hard to manipulate the conversation in the way one desires. People have to be polite and sensitive and present themselves in an acceptable manner, which becomes a social constraint. The recent statement of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, comes to mind. He announced that Facebook aims to make certain data public and easier to find. Perhaps he wanted to make a social network that is similar to a real one, where people are bound by moral norms and exposed to the other. Facebook would thus become a “face-to-face book.”
Are we a mobile version of the hikikomori?
The above findings tell us that perceptions of control over the presence of the other vary for direct network and curator-mediated network. When the presence of the virtual “other,” for instance, the public eye on Facebook, is apparent, respondents tend to think that they have less control over posts and other activities. In direct network (Kakaotalk), where one knows who he/she is talking to, respondents expressed a greater sense of control over the conversation. Due to the absence of the public eye, such an illusion is hardly interrupted.
The presence of the other can be constructed as a social constraint or a moral obligation. In direct network, one’s desire for control overwhelms the presence of the other. Respondents were almost always satisfied with the conversations they have in Kakaotalk because of the illusion of a “perfect” conversation that they can control. On the other hand, in curator-mediated network, where people are constantly exposed to the other, respondents were less active in interacting. Their hesitance on Facebook stems from an awareness of an unintended audience that is not known to them. This presence makes them feel as if they are embedded in a group. And when they feel that there is a group, they are compelled to act in socially and morally acceptable ways.
Can we then say that there is a break in social solidarity when we fail to sense the presence of the other and show only the “I”? Once we get used to having a satisfying interaction online, away from the presence of the other, we will have difficulty giving it up in favor of face-to-face interactions, where misunderstanding can occur more frequently. Also, when we believe that we are in control of the other during a conversation, the other’s intention or context might be ignored, disrupting the shared experience. Is this an indication that people are letting go of social solidarity for self-satisfaction?
While these findings speak for my Korean respondents, it would be good to reflect on how they apply to other cultural contexts. Are we perhaps becoming “hikikomori” in a time when online space is becoming increasingly significant in our daily interactions? Kato (2012) and other researchers outside Japan maintain that the hikikomori syndrome can be found in many other countries in different forms. People who are satisfied with the control they think they have online desire more control. Having achieved this online, offline interaction becomes less valued. People eventually want to stick to media spaces where they feel safe and powerful, for instance, direct networks. As such, many of us who prefer these kinds of interaction might not be any different from the hikikomori, who cut all social ties and isolate themselves in a safe place.
What does interaction mean then, if the interaction we prefer tends to be safe and secure? The emotional challenges presented by anger, embarrassment, and regret are necessary in order to understand the other and ourselves. But in online interaction, we are kept from such emotions in advance by controlling the interaction and making it safe. The only difference between us and the conventional hikikomori is that we are mobile and can have face-to-face encounters. However, as long as we are committed to interacting mainly in online space, or more specifically through direct networks such as Kakaotalk and other chat platforms, the people and the environment around us become less influential. We limit our authenticity in the online space where we feel secure. We are thus mobile hikikomori, isolated, not in a bedroom, but in online space. Perhaps we can call ourselves yubikomori. It is a new concept that captures the main argument of this paper.
Yubikomori is a term that combines “ubiquitous” with “hikikomori,” as well as the Japanese term “yubi” (meaning “finger”) with “hikikomori.” We move around with our fingers touching the screen of a smart phone, but we do not commit deeply or genuinely to any single interaction. We are satisfied with how our fingers manage to control and ensure the safety of the online interaction, but rarely notice whether or not such interaction is genuine. Does this indicate then, that such interaction is nothing more than a monologue between characters who have been assigned a lead and supporting role? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we are becoming yubikomori.
Editor’s note: “Interacting with Myself and by Myself…” is drawn from the author’s thesis.
Featured image taken from this site.
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 Kakaotalk is a multi-platform texting app that was launched in South Korea in 2010.