The Interpersonal Communication Breakdown

As my girlfriend was writing an intriguing piece about Facebook and its detrimental effects on society, a spark of interest was immediately there. That’s why I want to outline some of my thoughts in this blog post.

No doubt that Facebook is an amazing tool for communication. However, excessive Facebook usage might potentially bring serious health, economic and social issues. This being said, I am not talking about things like the loss of privacy or identity theft online. The premise here is that social networking sites like Facebook are very addictive, as they fulfill the basic need for human love, attention, recognition and belongingness. Facebook enhances our self-esteem, but also satisfies our need to know what is happening around us. Scholars Sherry Turkle, Danah Boyd and Susan Greenfield have been writing very eloquently about these topics, and old media dogs such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr have been covering this area too.  The above reasons are obvious and therefore no wonder so many individuals seem to suffer from what is called the “Facebook addiction disorder”. The consequences of this addiction are far reaching too: anxiety, stress and even depression. More and more, people are faced with an identity crisis because of this, reinforcing alienation from the real world.

As I already mentioned, these causes and consequences are not world shocking to me, and rather common sense, but an interesting and remarkable view is that social network sites like Facebook are also causing a communication meltdown.That is quite ironical though, as Facebook’s unofficial mission is Making the World More Open and Connected. A particular interesting view is put forward by Baroness Susan Greenfield. She especially touches on Facebook’s impact on the brain of the young generation.

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In modern life, the appeal of social networking sites to children is easy to understand. As many parents now consider playing outside too dangerous, a child confined to the home can find at the keyboard the kind of freedom of interaction that earlier generations took for granted in the three-dimensional world of the street.

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But beyond any frustration I feel is concern about the future our screen culture might create. One extreme situation could be a rise in psychiatric problems and fewer babies born because people can’t form three-dimensional relationships.

Greenfield rightly points out that interaction on social networking sites like Facebook are two dimensional by design. Greenfield argues then that this is gradually undermining peoples ability to have normal face to face communication which involves skills such as reading body language, voice tone and facial expression.

I can put up with Greenfield and it makes sense, but other studies go much farther and posit screen communication is decreasing the quality of “social interaction”. Communication tends to be more about gossiping than in face to face communication, so it goes. That can count for Facebook, as it looks to me that it is not so much different from real life and the conversations we have on the bus, at the dinner table or in the cafeteria. What is more shocking to me, is that pundit Sherry Turkle seems to put forward the idea in her latest book “Alone together” that online communication lessens intelligent conversations. Why would online conversations be shallow? What defines the quality of a conversation? Simple questions and answers are also prevalent in real life, as we need to be smart and come up with prompt answers in a system where time is money. And when do we have intelligent conversations in real life? Most of our conversations is water cooler talk anyway, be it at the dinner table, in the cafeteria or on the bus. Who decides that the information online is less significant than the information we share in our real world? Does a social networking site like Facebook influence our behavior in such a way that we cannot have “normal” conversations any more? That we don’t understand each other any more?

If social networking sites like Facebook really lower the “quality” of offline interaction and make us more anti social, and as the online playing field is becoming increasingly important, then this perhaps also raises the need for new skills in a society where screen communication is the de facto. I do indeed agree that interpersonal communication will change, but I do not see why that would lessen the quality of our conversations. Maybe we should ask ourselves to what extent skills such as body language, voice tone and intonation are still relevant. Other skills and signals, such as listening, might become more important too as we work more and more distributed and distantly. A new reality requires new perspectives. To put it simple: our nature changes, and evolution takes place. Natural selection is the result.

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