Antisocial Media? Human Contact in a Technological World

Stone Soup by Jan Eliot

Once again, my train of thought has been derailed. I promise to try getting back on track for next week. I had an idea for my post this week, but other events led me to reconsider that in favor of a little commentary on something that we all spend a large portion of our energy doing. I am talking about technology assisted socialization.

This is texting, emailing, mobile phone communication, and social media. These days, one or more of these methods make up the majority of our communication with our social group. I actually spent a large portion of my time in the past five years examining the phenomenon, and if any of you are having trouble sleeping, I’ll let you read the 200+ pages of my dissertation about it. However, I suspect that you would be more inclined to read something a little less dry.

So, as I said, about five years ago, I was out with a group of friends at one of our regular haunts for a night of social interaction and liquid refreshment. I was actually discussing with one of my companions the dilemma I was having. This dilemma was what topic I should choose for the focus of my doctoral dissertation. As she and I continued to discuss the problem talking about different interests and perplexing situations in the current events,  we both noticed silence from the others at our table punctuated by the occasional bark of laughter or “Check this one out.” We turned to observe our fellow occupants of the table to see one and all of them on some form of electronic device (phone, tablet, laptop) and each of them was busily typing and clicking. What?!? As we watched, we suddenly realized they were texting and sending things to each other. Was this what socializing with friends had become? They were not only in the same room, but actually at the same table completely absorbed in their devices! And thus, a dissertation was born. I won’t go into all the magnitude of research, testing, and analysis that was done. However, what I did find was that there are benefits and detriments to the electronic tethers we have fashioned for ourselves, and there are significant differences in the personalities of people who choose to socialize via their devices rather than through direct contact with their fellow humans. It was fascinating to me, and there were some considerable applications for my chosen field of psychology that came of this scientific exploration. I won’t bore my readers with the details. Instead I am going to type a bit on the subject of benefits and limitations of electronic socialization.

The miracle of technology has provided the ability to connect and communicate despite the impediment of geographic distance. Additionally, all the communication can take place in “real time” without the lengthy time delays of some of the other methods in history. The internet and mobile technology have provided an instant gratification scenario for social interaction at a distance. This has provided families separated by miles, continents, and oceans the ability to remain connected and share in the lives of their loved ones. The convenience of texts and mobile phones means that the forgotten item from the grocery list sent with your significant other need not be a problem. Crowds or loud environments need not be an obstacle to conversation. Compromised immune systems are no longer a source of complete isolation from human interaction. In short, social interaction is no longer limited to physical proximity or time-delayed methods.

The down side… Social interaction is no longer limited to physical proximity or time-delayed methods. Yep. I repeated myself, because one of the benefits of our modern technology has also provided some interesting detriments. The instantaneous conveyance of information across distances no longer provides the opportunity for thought and consideration put into responses. We don’t sit with writing implements considering all the best ways to put our thoughts and emotions into the prose on the page. In responding to correspondence, we no longer have the enforced delay of writing and mailing providing excellent opportunity to rethink what we just said and possibly take it back before sending it through the hands of postal workers to the person at the other end. Now, unfortunately, all that happens with the blink of an eye, blinding speed of fingers on keys, processing speeds of voice recognition software, and our knee-jerk reaction now wends its way towards the recipient with one click of the “Send” button. No take-backsies. There are delete buttons and even some ways that you can retrieve emails, but they don’t always have success in preventing a misstated comment from reaching the target.

Taking the immediacy into account, it is astounding the things that people are quite willing to say or do via electronic media that they might hesitate or even refrain from were they to find their communication companion in their physical presence. The relative anonymity of the internet has the dubious ability of making people extraordinarily unguarded in the things that they say to each other. Being unable to observe the consequences of what is said, people feel free to “flame,” berate, disparage, vilify, slander/libel, and humiliate the target. While it may seem silly or childish to be impacted by words appearing on an electronic screen, words can be powerful, sometimes more powerful that we expect or realize. Words have swayed populations of individuals who, though not inherently bad, were persuaded to follow leaders who advocated horrific deeds. On a singular level, the “cyber-bullying” of one young girl that took the form of a fictional relationship created to humiliate her resulted in her suicide. The impact of “friending” and “de-friending” has also been examined due to recent events receiving media attention, including a murder perpetrated by a teen on her parents who had removed her from their Facebook friends list.

Conversely, only about 20% of communication is conveyed by the words we use. That means that the rest of the 80% comes through body language, facial expression, vocal tone, and eye contact. The majority of our electronic communication and social interaction lacks the capability of translating these elements. I know. We have webcams and face time and teleconferencing software that lets you look at the people you are talking to, but it still misses some of the important nuances that are observable while sharing the same space with the person to whom you are speaking.

There have been any number of new social rules that have spawned from the misconstrued messages of the unwary. This “netiquette” as it is termed has provided some guidelines and methods of trying to add back into the text only format a bit of the nuances of in vivo communication. So, we know that all caps is yelling or putting particular influence on a word. For venues that allow it, there is also font changes that can lend mood or tone to the prose presented. There are also collections of letters that abbreviate phrases to take sting out of something that could be considered harsh. BUT… even with all the emoticons and acronyms the “interwebs” have to offer, in the end, all emotional content of a text-based communication is entirely in the head of the recipient. People forget that when they read something that someone has put into words that the tone and intent comes from the reader, not always the intended impact or emotional content of the writer.

Another adverse side effect of technology assisted socialization is how it has changed face to face social interaction. Once upon a time, I read a science fiction novel that was set on a planet where all the inhabitants wore masks. To not wear a mask was the equivalent of going naked in public. The upshot to this cultural evolution was that society at large had lost the ability to read facial expression or even to guard their own expressions. For outsiders, lying was incredibly easy, because no one had the ability to read microexpressions or sense dissembling. This seems to be part of the problem with our modern obsession with technological social interaction. People have lost their powers of observation. They fail to see discomfort, offense, interest, and pain. They also fail to measure and moderate their own physical (facial and body language) responses. In short, people appear to have forgotten how to be civil and have lost any sense of good manners. For all the “netiquette” that has been designed, we seem to have lost the etiquette of good manners.

From all of this, you may get the impression that I am anti-technology. That is not accurate. I truly believe that the advances we have made in technology have been and will be incredible for communication, keeping in touch with family and friends, commerce and business, and for the medical and therapy fields. The opportunities are enormous for geographically or physically isolated individuals to receive services previously unavailable. Thoughts and ideas shared across a wider expanse of people and geography has the benefit of spreading understanding and letting individuals separated by continents walk in the virtual shoes of their fellow human. Aside from that, it is just more convenient and downright fun to be able to text, talk, Facebook, etc. from wherever you happen to be and whatever you happen to be doing. I love feeling that I am sharing experiences with my loved ones who are many miles away. So, I would be the last person to toss the baby out with the bathwater. I do like my tech. You are reading my ‘blog, of course. As with anything, moderation appears to be the key.

So, all that said… things to remember:

  • Moderate your electronic socialization with actual face to face socialization when possible.
  • Try to take a break from your phone and/or computer for a couple of waking hours during every 24 hour cycle (they don’t necessarily have to be sequential hours).
  • Try an “off the grid” day or even a weekend, where you do not use any technology.
  • When engaging in face to face socialization, pay attention to the people, not the gadgets.
  • Remember that what you type has power and potentially greater longevity than the words spoken aloud (minus recording equipment).
  • Remember that anything you put out there on the internet has the potential of reaching an audience you never intended and may be out there for review for a long, long… long time.
  • The emotion you read into a text, post, email, etc. may not be what the writer intended.
  • Before responding to any electronic communication, take a moment to engage in some thought and consider how what you choose to put into words might be interpreted and whether the emotional response from any reader would be precisely what you were hoping to gain.

The internet and other electronic methods of engagement are tools for  social interaction. Remember that. Be wary of allowing these tools to become the primary interaction partners in your life instead of the humans who are your fellow inhabitants of the planet. And now we return you to your regularly scheduled texting, instant messaging, posting, and tweeting.

Stone Soup is a comic by Jan Eliot. For more http://www.gocomics.com/stonesoup/

One thought on “Antisocial Media? Human Contact in a Technological World”

  1. As someone who has involved with building, developing, and deploying technology my entire adult life I find it odd that I believe more and more that we as a society have lost something important with our reliance the types of technology you discuss.

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