Is social media making us anti-social?

A bit of a different kind of post today. We usually focus on technical topics or talk through some particularly interesting data from the Brandwatch application, but this one’s more of a discussion about social media in general and the impact it may be having on society:

“Is social media making us anti-social?”

This question was posted on Quora a month or so ago. It’s a version of a discussion I expect many of us have had at some point, and I imagine strong opinions usually surface on both sides.

Unsurprisingly though, found in the domain of a relatively fresh and hot ‘social’ website, the answers are pretty one-sided – a couple of people linger on the fence, but six or seven of answers are a fairly staunch no, with not a single sign of an out and out yes.

Of course, some might argue that the people in this arena are defending social media because they understand it more than some of those with a persistent aversion to it. But, equally, the possibility of simple self-preservational bias, from respondents who are evidently very involved in social media, should be no easier to dismiss than what may well be referred to (and justifiably at times) as the ignorance or narrow-mindedness of the detractors.

We can’t deny it is a different kind of interaction

There is some suggestion of this seemingly blind pro-social media bias in many of the replies. One respondent seems to oversimplify the matter when she asks “Why, at this point, are we claiming that using Facebook is any different than going to a face to face party? There’s really not much of a difference any more”.

Whilst I am not saying one form of interaction is superior to the other, there absolutely is a substantial difference if you consider the skills required for each and the particular kind of personal reward obtained from them. Jess Cartner-Morley claims, in her Guardian article, that “Saying what you think and hitting send is not the same as having a conversation” and I think this carries some weight – spoken or face-to-face communication demands a degree of instant, human reaction and empathy that premeditated, typed forms of communication can allow us to mask or manufacture to some degree.

Another point Cartner-Morley makes is about the “repercussions of cutting ourselves in or out of the loop as we please…real community doesn’t work like that”. Though social media communities may share several features of face-to-face communities, many of which we love, we must also recognise the differences, and be careful of the substitution of one for the other.

New technology in history

Other respondents to the question point out that, historically, any new form of interaction and communication such as the written letter, the wireless or the telephone, no doubt faced warnings from its critics at the time. There are obviously aspects unique to social media, such as the ease and speed with which it facilitates the “establishment of weaker, but more numerous, connections”, as Regnard Raquedan puts it, but the past technologies still revolutionised communication when they came to prominence.

The depth and complexity of our communication make it one of the key characteristics that sets humans apart from other species and it is the foundation on which civilisation has been built. So, when new and unfamiliar technology enters the mainstream and looks to affect this, it is bound to be met with wariness and concern. We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as simply ignorance or reluctance-to-change; it’s important to spend time to understand and evaluate them (cultural developments are not automatically always totally for the best, dare I say it) at the same time as embracing the benefits.

It does have significant, unique benefits

Christie Ann Barakat provides a well-balanced response acknowledging both sides. She describes the enrichment social media can provide ‘real-life’ relationships such as keeping in touch, planning, sharing and also praises the freedom of expression it allows “those who are otherwise socially awkward”; suggesting that “prejudices based on age, gender, race” can be stripped away in social media. This scrapes the surface, but there is an ever-growing list of ways we benefit from social media and, from the point of view I write from, these need little more documentation.

After posing examples of where people’s attachment to their ‘device’ does sometimes take precedence over face-to-face interaction, Barakat then concludes that “most of what we know about this is anecdotal and based on conjecture; we need more scientific research to answer questions about the advantages and pitfalls”. Whilst this might not provide the satisfying resolution some may hope for, I think it’s a pretty sensible and clear-headed summary of the issue’s current status.

To much of the wider world, social media is still relatively new, and we’re still learning how we should use it and how we should be cautious with it (privacy being a teething problem that won’t go away). The answer to the title question should not be an issue of optimism versus pessimism. We can wholly embrace the benefits and opportunities of this new form of communication whilst at the same time recognising that it can deeply alter our social and cultural values, meaning that we must not ignore the importance of evaluating how we use it in its infancy. Put quite simply, recognising both the advantages and the dangers is the only way we will learn how to best incorporate social media into our lives without incurring damage to values that we want to preserve.

If this post seems a tad too serious, please forgive me – to lighten the mood a little, take a look at Column Five’s infographic – Do you need a Social Media Detox? for a comic aside on the topic. If, however, it’s not serious enough, it may be worth taking a look at Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together for an in-depth look at how technology is affecting human interaction.

Mack Collier discusses the topic too, but he talks about ‘introversion’ as opposed to being anti-social. Perhaps this is a more accurate term to use – introverts love social media; is social media making people more introverted? Maybe it is – but is this the same as being more ‘anti-social’?

Please let us know what you think: Are we becoming more anti-social through our use of social media? Perhaps we are just becoming more introverted? Are these even appropriate terms to use?

  • Bryan Tookey

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    It may seem unrelated, but apparently chimney flues utterly changed the social dynamics of life in any big hall / house around the 14th and 15th Centuries. Before they were invented each hall would have a single large hall usually with a hole in the roof for the main central fire to vent its smoke. Everyone would sleep in the same room altogether; even the king and queen (4 poster beds arose because of the privacy issues). With their invention, there was no longer a need for everyone to sleep in the same room; the king and queen (or duke or lord etc) could get private rooms, followed by all the major household personnel.

    So I wonder if history will judge social media or chimney flues as having the bigger social change? And whether the courtiers of yesteryear resisted the new fancy private rooms over the communal living?

  • http://twitter.com/exmosis Scribe

    I’d argue this is a classic questions asked by people interested in Social Media, rather than in anti-socialness. To turn it on its head, I’d say that Social Media *highlights* the increasingly anti-social society we live in. The expansion of the web has been driven by what interactions people can “afford”, or get away with, in lives that are increasingly busy, and under surveillance.

    In other words, what can the general properties of Social Media tell us about how we interact with each other? Why do we feel the *need* to shink everything down into bitesize chunks? Why do certain platforms succeed or fail? What’s the *context* of communication, and how is that changing?

  • http://www.brandwatch.com Dominick Soar

    Thanks for your thoughts, some interesting questions you pose. So you think the popularity of the internet is a product of our increasingly anti-social society, as opposed to a cause of it? What do you think has been the fundamental cause?

    The question of why certain social media platforms succeed and others fail is fascinating, and I suspect very complicated. It could depend on the extent to which they tap into human communicative instincts, or it could be partly arbitrary or based on surface qualities like interface and usability?

  • http://www.mackcollier.com mack collier

    Thanks for the mention. I can only speak to my own experience as an introvert (although fellow introverts have told me the same thing), but social media is making me more social. First, it’s MUCH easier for introverts to be more expressive online via social media. A lot of the things that make it difficult for us to express ourselves in an offline setting, are removed when we go online.

    But I am noticing that the connections I have made online are making it easier for me to be social OFFline. If I know someone from Twitter, for example, then see them at an event or conference, it makes it much easier for me to introduce myself, and them to introduce themselves to me.

    So for me, social media is helping me be more social. Your mileage may vary ;)

  • http://www.brandwatch.com Dominick Soar

    Hi Mack. No problem, thanks a lot for your comment – glad you found us!

    The second point you make is really interesting. For introverts in particular, the way social media can enable introductions which can then be furthered offline can’t be ignored. Breaking the ice is not always easy and maybe social media helps with this?

    It’s possible people use the term anti-social when they really mean introverted; I think it’s important to make the distinction!

  • Jitender singh

    yeah! i think we are going to be anti social due to social media, because its the social media through which we can collect the information worldwide, but the person sitting in our side is unknown to us. Its the social media by which we come to know about the incidents across the world,but what’s going on with our neighbor, we don’t know. And when there is any person to see us whether its our relative or any other , we don’t prefer those because we prefer to spend the time with our media friends. That’s why i would like to say that social media is making us Anti social.

  • Dominick

     Thanks Jitender, it’s a very interesting point – communications are so globalised now that we can know more about people on the other side of the world than we do about the people around us. Although I think social media can still benefit local communities and relationships when used in such a way – local tweet-ups and events organised by likeminded locals who’ve met online.