Watching the 7.30 Report segment The global water cooler about the popularity of social media and social networks, I was prepared for the worst.
You know, that social media and social networks are causing the downfall of civilisation, that our brains are all going to slowly (or quickly) deteriorate as we keep using them to connect, that we will steadily un-evolve and lose all our social and communication skills with humankind. We will stop working and being productive, and contributing to society in ways that we deem as human and constructive. The normal kind of report you see in the mainstream media about this newfangled virtual communication thing.
Thankfully, it was not that, it had some interesting things to say and presented two sides to the story. Which I thought ended on the note that most sensible people were in favour of the whole thing.
At one point Kerry O’Brien mentions that “critics also wonder whether time spent in the virtual world is coming at the expense of real human contact” (my emphasis). Understanding that the meaning might be in the semantics: if I didn’t have a real human being on the other end of my virtual social network, I wonder what it might be (apart from a bot or alien). And I would hope I’d pick that up pretty quickly and not friend or follow them/it. Because authentic people speak in human voices, and it is really necessary to ‘be human’ online to develop trust and connection.
Social media is not likely to be your sole source of relationship. It’s how it all ties together. Look for example, at the success of #coffeemornings and #socialmelb (among others). Connections and friendships might start online or offline, but they transcend the medium, and we have such a choice of communication mediums these days. The tools that make up social media are among these, of course. For myself, sometimes I forget where I had the conversation, was it F2F or online? And it doesn’t matter - for when I do see that person F2F again, we have kept the relationship going in-between the times we meet in a ‘media-rich’ environment, aka face-to-face.
The points that the neuroscientist made on the 7.30 Report like…“It's (an) ‘all about me’ culture where you just have to publicise you're cleaning your teeth or you're putting your socks on or whatever”…is from a narrow viewpoint. This kind of thing can happen face-to-face too. Social media can be used for both good and evil, and the banal. Just like pretty much anything can.
And what of those people for whom face-to-face is not an option? If it’s a choice between ‘nothing’ and ‘online’ to keep a friendship going, virtual communication is better than none. Tools like Facebook in particular are a testament to that. I’m thinking travellers, expats, families/friends separated by geography, etc.
And there is evidence to support that rather than decreasing our social ties and connections, use of virtual communication actually increases it, and our social and literacy skills along with it. Research organisation Pew Internet has some interesting reports here and here.
There seems to be a pattern that when new communication technologies such as the printing press, television, web and now Web 2.0 come around, we think it will set us backwards. Then we find the balance.
We’re human. We can be really really very good at wasting time, whether it watching television, reading romantic novels, ‘surfing the web’, gossiping on the phone or even shopping. I’m pretty sure we’d be able to find time to waste time no matter what the medium.
It’s up to us to know when to switch on, and when to switch off. And when it’s useful and when it’s not. These things are not technology issues, they’re people issues. We’ll invent some other marvellous communication medium sometime soon.
Now, where are those aliens again? ;-)