TNGG: Online is real life, too

Originally posted on TNGG.

“The average young person today spends nearly nine hours each day with their technology,” opens a Frontline segment of “Digital Nation,” a report exploring the impact of growing up plugged in. But, is this time spent online really taking away from our “real life?” or is it one and the same.

There is a great deal written about the negative impacts of social media and the explosion of time spent online rather than doing, well, just about anything else. These views, one of which was recently featured here on TNGG, are not unfounded. Feelings that “real life” social worlds are becoming smaller are supported by the numbers, which indicate that since 1985 we have been transforming into a more socially isolated society. As this decline in social activity has coincided with the rise of the Internet, it seems only fair to assume that our obsession with the web is driving us all apart in the real world.

However, the Pew Research Institute disagrees.

In their report, “Social Isolation and New Technology” released in November of last year, the institute addresses the issue of isolation, acknowledging that: “Compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined… There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis.”

Admittedly, the report is not able to offer up explanations for the cause of this drift. However, they are able to rule out one very important source: “new information and communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. Our survey finds the opposite trend amongst internet and mobile phone users; they have larger and more diverse core networks.” (Full Report)

In fact, it was found that people who are very plugged in are typically more active locally and have greater knowledge of their communities, and that social media use is often associated with positive social behavior. People who are plugged are not being pulled away from public spaces, instead use of the Internet and mobile technology has become a “common component of people’s experiences within many public spaces.” And, by opening our social circles to people we know virtually exposes us to a greater variety of viewpoints and opinions that our “real life” social networks do not offer.

Much of the sentiment that social interactions on new media are somehow fake or less than real, seem to be predicated on the notion that there was some golden era of face-to-face communication. Maybe there was. But, I bet that just unplugging won’t get us back there. Something has changed in our society and it’s very possible that social media is just what we need to keep us together.

Further, our problems with social media seem to derive from the fact that we’re inappropriately treating in-person and virtual communication as entirely different things.

Usman Haque, Director of Haque Design + Research and co-founder of Pachube, recently gave a talk about his theories of connectedness for Creativity. In it he spoke about the ongoing and primarily virtual relationship he has with his 3 year old niece; a relationship that began the moment he first saw her in the delivery room via web cam. As she grew up he recounts that:

“There was this kind of concern early on by her parents that she would be very confused when we finally met in person. That she wouldn’t be able to sort of connect this 2d character with the 3d character in front of her. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She is able to flow back and forwards through these physical and virtual spaces without really making any distinctions. I think it’s the kind of thing adults make. It’s a very quaint idea. It’s a little bit like the 19th century’s divide between body and mind which we kind of think is a little ridiculous now. I think the coming generation is going to think this divide is also ridiculous.”

I think that treating virtual communication vs real communication as a zero sum game is a mistake. The real argument here isn’t over how much we use social media. It’s about whether or not we are making best use of it.

Are we using social media to,

  • Widen the variety of our social connections and reach out to larger networks of those who share our interests?
  • Utilize the online space as a way to augment our social relationships rather than limit them?
  • Connect with people rather than disconnect?

Or are we just using social media as an entertaining way to pass time?

I think it’s probably a little of each, and so we should continue to strive to foster relationships with substance and seek out meaningful engagement, both virtual and real.

Image Credit


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