The Greatest Change to Communication and Relationships in History

As far as changes to the way people interact, how friends are made, how privacy is thought of; nothing over the entire course of the human species has made as significant of a change to human communication and relationships as social networks.

Looking through history at each of the technological advances to communication: the telephone, fax, email, post, word of mouth, and written language. None has enabled the human species to communicate to the world and receive information back passively, with such great efficiency, as online social networks. Consider a photo from a family vacation. Before online social networks, an email could be sent with an attachment to intended recipients. Before that this photo would have to be sent by fax or post. If recipients liked the photo, they couldn’t click a ‘like’ button, or leave a thumbs-up icon on your door. Some would send back a thank you note, or return a similar photo of their own loved ones in kind.

It is now possible to have a presence in the lives of hundreds of people without ever having to directly communicate with them. As my brother put it while describing the very early stages of the publicly accessible Facebook: “it allows you to create the illusion of staying in contact with people, without actually having to do so”. And so it is, those peers from high school, who we mostly wouldn’t have stayed out of touch with, now occasionally grace our feeds with a baby photo, opinion, or shared news clipping. The family members who before the Internet only crossed our desks with holiday cards, family dinners, and reunions, suddenly can keep track of our whereabouts, and tell us what they think of our lifestyles, without having to gossip with other family members.

The title “social network” is both very accurate, and a paradox. For while those networked by their social connections can now keep tabs on each other with almost no effort, each person is less connected to their friends and family than ever before. As it is no longer necessary to invest time to maintain individual relationships, the lack of having to stay in touch leaves every person with fewer personal moments shared with the people they care the most about.

On the one hand it’s great, we can all stay better informed, not lose touch, and are more likely to be able to recall a face to a name if we bump into each other by accident. We’re more likely to follow up and make plans, or wish each other happy birthday. The main net result is we have a certain amount of surface knowledge about each other, that we wouldn’t have had without our virtual ‘what I’m doing these days bulletin board’. Where in the past an update on what we are doing, where we are working, etc., would have required talking to a mutual connection, or directly communicating – now a short search on the internet, LinkedIn or Facebook will do.

The negative argument is this diminishes social expectations of relationships. As we – people existing and getting information from social networks – become more used to tracking our peers on Facebook and sharing moments in our lives on Facebook, we’re taking away the natural inclination to do so in the conventional way, the one where we choose who receives the update, and we send it out showing intention. Sharing news about your life on the internet certainly makes it possible to share your news with the world, but it doesn’t have a personal touch like a phone call, postcard, or even, yes, email might have. Perhaps the latter for many is also too impersonal, but at least a specific recipient had to be chosen in that case, which is not the same when it comes to Facebook.

Additionally reducing the quality of a communication on Facebook, the software logic which decides what appears in our so called ‘personalized’ news feed, dictates what we actually see in our feed. Multiple factors up-vote and down-vote the likelihood of a friends shared moment even appearing in our own feed.

So what can we do about this?

There is no going back, I’m afraid. No social revolution will take away this new way of staying connected. Though some dilution is inevitable; certainly as the number of Facebook registered users continues to climb, other social networks pop-up taking away entire generations, and still other camps find the Internet medium for sharing life events isn’t the right one for them – they deactivate or delete their account. Those people condemn themselves to a world where the only information others know about them, is that which others shared albeit the old fashioned way. But at least there is a more genuine nature and quality to the old fashioned way, one can know who they’ve kept in touch with, and one can focus on building relationships without the Internet, where things may be slower, harder, less informed, but at least you know who is making effort. Somehow this is even a strengthener, for while sharing, tagging, and ‘liking’ each others content online is some lightweight method of indicating interest, a physical or 1-to-1 gesture of direct communication now has more weight than ever before.