The Paradox of Social Media: The More Social It Gets, The Less Social We Become

First published February 24, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have teenage daughters. At least, I assume they’re still my daughters. They hang around our house and eat our food. But, to be honest, it’s been a while since we identified ourselves to each other. Between Angry Birds, SMS and Facebook, there’s precious little actual conversing going on in the Hotchkiss household. I barely recognize their faces, lit up as they are by the cool blue digital light of an iPhone screen. I assume that, at times, there’s a living being at the other end of their multi-texting, but I’m not really sure.

Yesterday, I overheard this in our lunch room: “I went for dinner the other night but have no idea how it was. Between tweeting my location, updating my status and posting a review to Yelp, I never actually ate anything.”

I’m guessing this comment was made in jest, but you never know. I remember one after-conference party held under the bridge in Sydney’s magnificent harbor, watching one very well-known search guru tweet his way through the entire evening. I don’t think he even noticed the Opera House on the other side of the bay. He was so busy tweeting his experience; he overlooked the actual “experiencing” part.

It seems to me that the more we engage in social media, the less social we actually become. The world in front of our noses is increasing being obstructed by one type of screen or another. The more we live in our new digital communities, the less we live in our real-life, flesh and blood ones. I can’t remember my neighbor’s name, but I can track the minute-by-minute location of people I’ve never met and probably never will. And by the way, congats on becoming Mayor of the Beans n’ Buns coffee shop on the corner of “LOL” and “OMG” in a city I’ll never set foot in. I’m not sure why that’s important to me, but all the “in” people assure me it is.

Humans were built to be social, but I’m not sure we were designed for social media. For one thing, research has proven that multitasking is a myth. We can’t do it. Our kids can’t do it. Nobody can do it. Much as we think we’re keeping all our digital balls in the air, eyes darting back and forth from screen to screen, it’s all a self-perpetuated ruse. Attention was designed to work with a single focus. You can switch it from target to target, but you can’t split it. If you try, you’ll just end up doing everything poorly.

Secondly, we’re built to communicate with the person in front of our nose. We pick up the vast majority of a conversation through body language and visual cues. Try as technology might, there’s just no way a virtual experience can match the bandwidth or depth of engagement you’ll find in a real face-to-face conversation. Yet, we continually pass up the opportunity to have these, opting instead to stare at a little screen and text our thumbs off.

As we spend more time with our digital connections, it’s inevitable that we’ll have less satisfying engagements with the people who share our physical space and time. The disturbing part about that is we may not realize the price we’re paying until it’s too late. Social media has slyly incorporated many elements from online gaming to make using it treacherously addictive. I suspect if we wired up the average teen while she was using Facebook or Foursquare, we’d find a hyperactive pleasure center, bathing her brain in dopamine. We’re forgoing the real pleasures of bonding to pursue an artificially wired short-cut.

The ironic part of all this is that I wrote this column on a four-hour flight, spending most of it staring at some kind of screen or another. The person sitting next to me on the plane? I don’t think we spoke more than four words to each other.

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