Much is being written these days about how social media affects us, and a lot of people think it’s not all that helpful. Most prominent among the platforms and websites under contemplation of course, is Facebook; and noteworthy articles on the broader topic appeared here this weekend in both local newspapers.
In the Palm Beach Post, Rhonda Swan encouraged readers to make phone calls (at least) to friends and loved ones on important dates such as birthdays, instead of sending such greetings through Facebook.
In the Stuart News, Eve Samples wrote a piece keyed to a University of Michigan study of 14,000 students that found that young people today are far less empathetic than they were a few decades ago, and hypothesized that growing up in the world of the Internet contributes to their disengagement.
If only because of the impact the trend can have on us as professionals, those of us who make a living as communicators have a special duty to consider such commentary seriously. But there’s a lot more.
Aside from the loss of gentility and civility – not to mention language art – that occurs with ever-more truncated messaging, there are huge functional differences between on-line and in-person dialogue.
Eye contact, vocal inflections, body language and facial reactions are all essential parts of human communication. Emoticons are grossly inadequate substitutes, and in many cases, are as cynical, automatic and meaningless as the “have a nice day” chirp you get at the end of a commuter flight.
Then there’s efficiency. Arranging a lunch date with a colleague via email recently took several days, even though said colleague has an iPhone that’s never turned off or more than six inches away from her elbow. We could have done it in two minutes the old-fashioned way — on the phone. If you’re thinking “maybe she really didn’t want to do it…” that only serves to prove the point. It was her idea in the first place.
More dramatically, there was the case of the two little girls in Australia who, after wandering into a storm drain and getting lost, updated their Facebook status instead of calling the Aussie version of 911.
Most important, there’s the matter of relationship development.
One of the qualities that sets human beings apart from other animals is that they form lasting bonds with other human beings on the basis of feelings like respect and trust. It’s impossible to do that without hearing, seeing and otherwise experiencing each other as people.
Every so often, people max out on progress and technology, and rebel. In the 1990s, it was cocooning. For a while a few years ago, the hot trend was to abandon the corporate life and go “off-the-grid.”
When Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and whatever comes next have cycled through and leveled off, we’ll rediscover talking to each other eye to eye — and hopefully, listening.