The Conflict of Online Social Networks

With this new year rolling out, I find myself coming back to a topic of personal improvement that has been on my mind for a while: Social Networks. How they appropriately can support relationships and communication, and how they detract from relationships and communication.

It’s been said a number of times that people actually find themselves isolated from a physical social life when using online social networks, in some cases, even doing so in place of interacting with people in the physical realm. While there is a bump of excitement when friends like or comment on an update we posted to our Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Youtube, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Flickr, etc. (and in some cases strangers or exclusively virtual acquaintances), the long term value really doesn’t work out to much more than this little emotional bump. And then it’s gone, with nothing left, not memories, no stories to pass along. Quite an empty social interaction really.

Personally, I haven’t read about any studies on the effects of using social networks versus spending time with people face to face, but recently I began to look back through all the time I’ve invested into social networks, the people I have connected with there, what I get out of it, and then I looked back at my face to face world; similar to the social network parts: the time I invest, the people I connect with, and what I get out of them. Turns out, from the online social networks, the biggest value has been that people know what I’m up to, and I know some of the things going on in their life too. That’s about it. Aggravating this, turns out, with all the algorithms managing the things we get in our social network “feeds”, we’re not even getting all of the updates from our friends, just those programmed to meet our ‘expectations’ for things we would like to see, based on some programmers work. In the face to face realm, the people that I spend time with is far fewer compared to the online group, but those that I do see and speak to, provide more important moments for me. Turns out, there’s a lot of people who will take time to connect and communicate with me online, but have never once made the effort to do anything with me in person. No coffee chats. No parties. No help with work or personal life issues. That’s something I seek to change.

I just finished a year off from work and when I got back I pursued finding work aggressively, online and offline. The online efforts got me one small job, but the offline efforts, even those like walking up and down the street talking with businesses, got me multiple jobs, which have been worth easily 8-10 times more value than the one job I found online. That’s right, the return on investment in face to face time got me more work than the efforts I made online. And believe me I spent a lot of time generating some opportunities online. I guess the people who I could meet in person had a stronger impression and really focused on my needs. Those online, might have been too distracted, or I wasn’t communicating properly through the text and updates, etc. Who knows. The results are still obvious.

This wasn’t a scientific experiment, surely there are many opportunities for people to explore online alone, with no need to leave their computer. But there are just as many people baffled by the dependance of others to online networking and communication dependance. And those people trust a face they met in person, and would rather discuss important topics than spell it all out in an email, or schedule a video chat.

I know I’m not alone, many folks feel the pain of the rush to be online, some are just over whelmed with all the things that can be done online now. Many get by still just fine with brick and mortal style, it’s nice to see. But then there are all the others who I know I will not stay in touch with unless I stay online. And that’s the thing that’s on my mind the most now. How offline can I be and not fall out of touch? Should I just go 95% offline, saving the few moments I do login, to reply to email and respond to a Facebook message or some other online only activity? I would like to stay offline. In my own experiment, I will focus in doing more offline. We’ll see how it goes. I hope I can offer some more insights on that.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

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.