Is Social Media Antisocial?

Social media isn’t a destroyer of socialisation, but rather a natural progression of our keenness to seek out like-minded people and to escape our physical, geographical limitations

Three's a crowd? Or just better options on-line?
Richard White
On 21 November 2011 12:51

We live in a connected society; it’s not quite a connected world, with Internet access in parts of Africa and Asia being so low that it’s not even a part of daily life, but here in the West many people couldn’t contemplate going a day without checking Facebook or Twitter at least once.

It’s called social media and certainly most of us pertain to that view, considering it a way of keeping in touch with friends and family we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. This is true, of course: our online social outlets connect us not only to friends we lost touch with, but people we wouldn’t have the ability to get to know in real life.

But is there another side to the social media coin, where we are becoming less social rather than more social?

A recent book entitled Alone Together suggests that’s the case, with the author, Sherry Turkle, expressing concerns that our obsession with social media destroys communications in the real world.

Indeed, a quick glance in any café or town centre will reveal countless people with their heads bent down, eyes fixated on their phone screen, ignoring the people they are with except perhaps to enlighten them of the latest update from a distant friend on Facebook or a hilarious anecdote on FailBlog or FML.

Turkle believes that our incredible achievements in technology have caused isolation rather than cohesive communication: “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us.”

Is this a justified stance or a frenzied knee-jerk reaction to a simple shift in how we talk to one another? Some years ago the concern from mobile phones was that ‘text speak’ was dumbing down children’s literacy skills to the point that they thought it acceptable to write homework with the time-saving text speak of “u” and “L8”. But that turned out to be a non-issue involving a small minority of children who quickly rectified the situation thanks to being corrected by the teacher.

There’s always a reason for behaviour, though, and our perpetual staring at screens is not a result of our lack of ability to hold a real conversation but the simple fact that our technology is so advanced there’s little we cannot use it for.

A discussion over a cup of coffee may lead to a Google search for an answer; heads may be bowed when walking down the high street to write on someone’s wall to arrange a time to see the new blockbuster release; native search capabilities of newer phones allow us to find things to do in the local area, and so on.

There are always going to be people who serve as an example of the darker side of something, especially with something as new and encompassing as social media and interactive technology. There will be some people so consumed by their online world that there’s a huge chasm between that and their real world lives, but for these people it’s invariably a case of using the Internet for escapism anyway rather than Facebook actively destroying their rich and fulfilled lives.

Considering that society still functions with people in real-life jobs, holding real-life meetings and talking to real-life friends and family members, it’s jumping the gun considerably to suggest that we either can’t or soon won’t be able to function properly in the real world, especially on a whole societal level.

There’s a flipside to this, too: a bullied teenager that takes refuge in social media to talk to people with common interests will probably be happier and more confident than a bullied teenager with no outlet or way to talk to like-minded people, and that can only be a good thing.

Social media isn’t a destroyer of socialisation, but rather a natural progression of our keenness to seek out like-minded people. A large part of the Internet’s popularity is precisely that it allows us to find what we like, and it’s brought together huge groups of people in the meantime.

From authors and readers connecting on Goodreads to business professionals finding new friends on LinkedIn, the vast array of social media websites allow us to actively seek out and connect with people that we want to be friends with, rather than remaining only in the social circle that our physical geographical position permits. 

Richard White is the author of Smoke Screens: The Truth About Tobacco and owner of Word Edit: Professional Literary Services

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