Social media, like many technologies, are an empty shell—a vessel waiting to be filled with meaning by the people who use them. If Facebook is nuclear research, will it be used to build a bomb or to power peaceful civilian enterprise? Do social media encourage people to connect in real life or do they leave us, as M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle says, alone together—an increasingly isolated and anxious society coldly comforted by the number of people we are able to contact instantly on portable electronic devices?
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When Jenna Wortham decided to spend a quiet night at home, she was bombarded with regret as her friends’ Tweets and Foursquare updates loudly announced their arrival on her phone. She was stricken by thoughts of how much better her night might be if she were our spending it with friends and felt regretful about deciding to stay in. It’s all part of our tortuous imagination, says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology at Duke University. When we see our friends sharing a drink without us, we think we have made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.