One common criticisms I always hear about our social media and digital society is 'it's killing human interaction skills like conversation.' Granted there has been studies that have shown declines in social and conversational skills over the past decade. But I'd like to argue that social media isn't causing it, television already did the damage.
I can understand why fear pervades the social space, as we all fear change. Some psychologists have argued that social networking will contribute to the death of emotional intelligence. While there are clear signs that declining amounts of face to face interaction reduces our ability to practice non-verbal communication, the reality is the various forms of technology and media in our daily lives today actually increases the volume of our communication. Granted the medium, form and language can be very different from our traditional communication frameworks. But our connected world have enabled stronger communication bonds to form.
In my opinion, the medium through which you communicate does not destroy your inter-personal skills, it merely reflects and amplifies them. Here's my take on why social media can have a positive effect on our communication skills.
To illustrate my case against television, I refer to the Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. According to Shirky, starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialised world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.
Television is a passive interaction, where our ability to contribute to the dialogue is limited to changing the channel. Granted millions around the world built emotion relationships with Sitcom characters like Sex in the City's Carrie Bradshaw, Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill), 'Married... with Children', Gilligan of 'Gilligan's Island' or George Costanza (Jason Alexander), 'Seinfeld'. Forming strong psychological bonds and empathy for an individual that only offered a one-way relationship. It's also impacted the nature of our communication. Think about how many of us use our remote control. As soon as we are bored—even a little bit—we change the channel. A commercial comes, we change the channel, and now with TiVO we can cut out the commercials entirely. All we want is the “good stuff.”
Social Media on the other hand, while it remains digitally enabled, the interactive is more proactive. In order for the dialogue to take meaning we need to contribute back to the conversation. But possibly the most significant enhancement is the pure volume and frequency in which we contribute to the dialogue. Now we share what we ate, how we feel, weird stuff we see on the street, and list gets much longer and crazier. Some might laugh at these examples, but the reality is they have us expressing ourselves more frequently and often more openly, two sound foundations for positive human interaction.
To take a balanced, rational view, it is also perfectly possible that some might turn to social media to shy away from direct contact. Perhaps this is a bad thing, I’m sure the psychologists can contribute the theory. But what if direct contact is so painfully embarrassing and stressful to such people that they would not interact anyway? Perhaps then social media can actually increase a person's communication skills, albeit in a less implicit way where physical human relationships can't be developed.
The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn't exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others. Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.
This is a good thing, right?