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

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.

10 comments about "The Paradox of Social Media: The More Social it Gets, The Less Social We Become ".
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  1. Alex Epstein from National Safety Council, February 24, 2011 at 1:20 p.m.

    Gord -

    You and I see things from a very similar perspective.

    Is there a qualitative difference between texting a conversation and speaking it?

    Of course there is.

    Here is my take on teenagers and their media interactions.

  2. Susan Roane from The RoAne Group, February 24, 2011 at 1:23 p.m.

    Three cheers for insights on the impact of our "anti-social" behavior. How I wish your post would be mandatory reading!
    I adore digital social networking as much as the next tweeter, but all research concludes it's our human interactions and relationships that determine happiness, memory retention and better health. How can we make real time friends without spending real time with them?
    Disclosure: I'm the author of Face to Face: How To Reclaim The Personal Touch in a Digital World and speak internationally on the subject.

  3. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, February 24, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

    Actually, formal studies suggest that the people who are most active with social media are more likely to meet othe people face to face and to get involved in their brick-and-mortar communities.

  4. Steven Groves from Social Marketing Conversations, LLC, February 24, 2011 at 3:03 p.m.

    Gord - I L-O-V-E this post. I've spoken to many, many peers, other social media denizens and strategist and my sense of it is we, as a culture, are still pretty enamored with being able to connect and converse so easily with the 4 corners of the world. It's a pendulum swing right now that will, in time, swing the other way (notice the privacy push right now) and eventually, we'll all settle in to allowing the technology to be what it is - a way to communicate; quickly, easily, socially with our friends, friends of our friends, associates and family. I swear, it really is coming!

    BTW, what city is it with a corner of OMG & LOL? Not sure but I think I might have had coffee there!

  5. Paul Sevensky from Marywood University, February 24, 2011 at 3:12 p.m.

    How true this is; I posted a similar observation on my blog some time ago when a student I know mentioned that more people knew his Twitter handle than knew his name.

    Thanks for a great post.

  6. Brad Mcmillen from Shoreline Interactive, February 24, 2011 at 3:26 p.m.

    Loved this post Gord, great stuff. I was literally thinking about this very subject this morning so must be "law of attraction" at work. I can relate on so many levels.

    I won't quibble over any research or data or what's been proven or disproven, I'm just speaking from my own observations. How many times have you been talking with a group of people when one of them checks the ol' BlackBerry for messages and, like Pavlovian dogs, everyone else does the same thing? Like we're missing the latest CNN headlines about some topic that has no impact on us, or some random work email you were copied on, to disengage from a conversation with real live people. I'm as guilty as the next person since I sleep with my BB and my iPad.

    What happened to sitting and talking? Or just sitting and thinking?

    Good stuff!

  7. Ev Sharp from My Personal Vet, February 24, 2011 at 4:08 p.m.

    Another viewpoint that is well-written (although not by me):

  8. Tim Patterson, February 24, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.

    To me it's all about balance. Yes, I tweet and post on FB and check in via 4Square like lots of folks....but when I go out with my kids we face each other and chat. Talk, actually. When we're at home we make a point to disconnect from XBOX 360 and do other, homework, baking brownies, practicing music.

    Perspective and the willingness to live your live with the balance...that's all it takes. It's actually really easy when you set your mind to it.

  9. Amy Do from SPARK, February 24, 2011 at 9:21 p.m.

    Completely agree! We're physically present, but now we're more consumed with people who are not in front of us, missing out onthe experience of actually being "social".

    I've now made it a habit to dedicate 100% of my time to the task at hand. Putting the cell phone away at meetings, as well as lunch and dinner. Not only because I don't believe in multi-tasking, but they deserve it.

  10. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 24, 2011 at 9:44 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments. One response for Susan Breidenbach. I suspect this is because of flawed study design. Highly social people would be highly active in social media, and would be highly social in their communities as well. But what is the impact on the average person? I can tell you anecdotally that the world seems less physically connected than before.

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