The Isolation of Social Media

I recently had a conversation with a number of younger folks in their 20s. We were talking about calling someone versus texting them, or leaving them a message on Facebook. What they told me wasn’t necessarily a revelation at this point, but underscored a trend in our society, and perhaps shed some light on what opportunities might lay ahead.

The conversation started with us all talking about why they prefer to text than to talk to someone on the phone. The conversation was long, but eventually we arrived at the following simple idea: calling someone interrupts their schedule so they can talk to you. The phone rings, and the person on the receiving end must either drop what they are doing to talk to the caller, drop what they are doing to decide not to answer the call, or simply have anxiety that someone is calling them and they need to make a decision about it. There is a disruptive sense to a phone call, according to this group.

A text message, email, or Facebook message, however, is the opposite. It’s a way to communicate without saying “my schedule is more important than yours, so drop what you are doing and communicate with me.” It’s much more passive and an immediate response is not always expected. Having said that, there are (according to this group) different expectations set. See an article called “ASAP’S Fables” I wrote way back in 2003 about a similar issue.

Texting was seen as a more “immediate” communication, because everyone has their phone on them at all times, so unless the receiver was really busy the common thought is they’d reply to a text message fairly quickly. Facebook and email don’t have similar expectations. I say “email” here, but know that email never came up as a subject. None of the folks knew each other’s email addresses. If they need to send each other messages or files or whatever, they will do it over Facebook.

There was a whole discussion of other apps (Snapchat, Instagram, etc…) and how they use each app to communicate with specific groups of people in specific ways. The details of that are less important to this article, other than the idea that this group actively seeks ways to communicate with each other in different electronic ways.

And none of these ways include picking up a phone and calling each other.

What do we make of this, and where is it headed? On one hand, the lack of real human interaction, I believe, is harmful to us. When all communication is abstracted by layers of technology we really are all just living in a video game or simulation. On the other hand, these folks (and I can attest to this personally, too) know much more about each other’s lives (in a real minute-to-minute way) than they ever would have before the technologies they use existed. In a sense they are more connected, but at a distance. I personally wonder how this affects our psyches when it comes to empathy, exhibitionism (i.e.: the need to show everyone what you are doing at all times), and social anxiety.

At the bars I frequent, people are sitting and looking at their phones instead of meeting and talking to new people.

Maybe none of this is news to you, but let’s talk for a moment about where this is going. One-on-one actual conversations have suddenly become much more personal and meaningful than they ever were, because they happen infrequently. The group I spoke with only chatted on the phone with their parents and family, and sometimes their significant others.

Will these folks become more attached to your company if you are able to get through to them on the phone? No, not at all. They’ll resent you for butting into their schedule, thinking your time is more important than theirs. For many years companies have used traditional social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with this audience. But I have yet to see a company let customers use FaceTime, for example, to talk to customer service.

I would like to believe that eventually people will rebel against technology and yearn for a real connection to another human being. But I don’t foresee that happening for several years, because the current paradigm is so new. But once these “kids” start raising families of their own, they might be more aware of the physical distance that social media is actually putting between people.

Until then, I am hoping a new breed of social media services will begin to emerge: ones that aim to bring people physically together and not just isolate them further. No, I am not talking about dating apps. I mean platforms like Instagram that reward uses (in the way everything is being gamified these days) for actually meeting up with friends in person and doing things together (instead of just taking photos of your lunch). Apps like Foursquare hint at this kind of direction but are only early prototypes when it comes to what these apps could do to bring people together.

If that caught on, social media might move away from its current isolationist side effect, and actually encourage social interaction in the real world, not just the virtual one.

Until next time…

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