Is social media really that social?

As a society we’re more connected than ever before. We know what our friends are doing at seemingly any hour of the day. We’ve had a look through their latest holiday photos. We’ve even been able to catch up with that person we haven’t seen or heard of since the last day of school.

But I wonder what impact it’s having on the day-to-day manner in which people interact. Years ago, a colleague of mine made a short film where friends were supposedly ‘catching up’ over a coffee. Instead, they sat in a café and took turns answering their mobile phones and barely even spoke to each other.

Like that short film, I wonder how many people are too busy chatting with cyber friends instead of speaking to real people that may be right in front of them. In a modern family, would it be uncommon to see one parent answering work emails on their Blackberry, the other parent chatting with friends on Facebook, one child checking what their mates are doing on Twitter, and another child having a conversation with someone via SMS?

Look, I’m no luddite. I realise that these ways of communicating have many benefits but is anyone stopping to question if there’s a downside (and no, I’m not talking about bad reception or no Wi-Fi)? I’m talking about face-to-face interaction taking a serious backseat to the digital stuff.

Some people may argue that television was just as interruptive to how families or groups communicated (or didn’t) when it arrived on the scene. However, in defence of television, it is a more communal medium. A group of people all sit around and share the same experience, often using it as the basis of a conversation. And the other thing is that TV (at least how it exists in its current form) is a fairly passive medium. You just sit in front of it, and it all comes to you. It doesn’t take you away into a separate conversation or experience, excluding the other people who may be sitting in the room with you.

For example, I think a person having an ongoing conversation via SMS while other people are in the same room is a little like whispering to someone in the presence of others. When I was a child I was taught that this was rude behaviour because it’s alienating. However, these days, if it’s the same behaviour but uses technology, it’s seemingly appropriate.

These technologies were designed to aid human interaction, not replace it, so the ground rules and basic manners should still remain the same.

So next time you’re using social media or spending time online, just keep in mind that you could be missing out on much more than someone’s status update. Or put another way, you don’t want the only social life you’re living to be a digital one.

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