Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?

I kinda enjoy texting. It allows me to avoid talking to anyone. And I like it that I can “like” comments and events on Facebook. That means I can maintain some level of contact with minimal effort. It appears I’m not alone.

When I go to business meetings or conferences these days, I notice that people pay more attention to their computers and smart phones than they do to the speakers. And I know it is fashionable these days to live Tweet a conference, but at some level doesn’t that seem rude to the speaker. To say nothing about all the followers who have to delete the tweets, which generally are meaningless since they appear without any context, as soon as they are received. Just sayin’.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this was an interesting article in the NYT, “The Flight From Conversation.” Here’s from the op-ed by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at M.I.T.:

WE live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.

At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another.

A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them. He says they’re “too busy on their e-mail.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.”

A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

We’re never going to return to the days of landlines, snail mail and office stop-and-chats. Doubt that few, if any, would really want that.

But it strikes me that the pervasive use of social media has us heading into some uncharted territory in terms of real-life relationships at home, at work, and in society in general. Wonder if people will stop going out to eat once talking gives way completely to texting and monitoring e-mail?

As I thumb through my e-mail this early a.m. and check on Facebook and Twitter to see who has just checked in at work or at a place for coffee, it’s apparent how easy it is to keep in touch without being very social.

Not sure that’s a good thing.

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