Are Social Web Sites Spoiling In-Person Conversation?

[qi:010] Who says social web sites improve friendships? For while they can undoubtedly help us meet new people and stay in touch, their effect on the way we converse with one another face-to-face can be decidedly negative.

Two weeks ago I bumped into a friend whom I hadn’t seen in months, and we tried to strike up a conversation. But since we follow each other on Twitter, are friends on Facebook and blog-stalk one another, the usually enjoyable conversation quickly turned awkward. Every major update to our lives, after all, had already been published online.

So are social web sites ruining in-person conversation?

Wanted: A Conversation Tracker

Jeremy Hanks, an admitted Twitter addict, says yes. “Sometimes I assume that everyone reads my blog or sees my tweets,” he explained to me, “so I run into hang-ups in conversation. With so many voices now” — among them email, texting, calls, blogs, comments and social web sites — “it’s like we need a conversation tracker to know who’s heard what and where before engaging in a discussion.”

New York Times columnist Joanna Pearson, in telling the story of a clumsy encounter with a date she had Googled beforehand, wrote, “There’s something to be said for the spontaneity and authentic facial expressions of utter ignorance.” She concluded that sites like Facebook can actually make physical meetings “a little less interesting.”

Others argue that social web sites aren’t to blame for ruined conversations on their own merits. But as a collective part of an overly connected world, they’re certainly contributing to it.

Even my socialite kid sister has complained to me about how many mediums people are on while simultaneously having in-person conversations. “I was talking to a friend recently, and she was rudely instant messaging and perusing her Facebook account at the same time,” she recounted to me. “I couldn’t help but feel I was the one who was most negatively affected by the interchange.”

As it stands, the simultaneous use of multiple social technologies is often received by the bystander as, “Somewhere else, there is someone more important than you.”

A Poor Replacement

What’s more, social web sites and their related communication tools are increasingly being abused as replacements for the human touch, according to communication consultant Patti Wood. This despite the fact that, as she bluntly noted, “The Internet was designed to share information, not emotions.”

When asked if social web sites were spoiling verbal conversation, she observed, “The idea of being present in the moment is disappearing. Oftentimes we devalue our current situation — the friends and family around us, our surroundings and setting — for something going on somewhere else, somewhere that seems far more interesting that what is right in front of us.”

Still, many people think social networking sites enhance in-person conversation. Examples include status updates, which can spur deeper dialogue during in-person discussions later on. But it’s important to adapt one’s oral approach accordingly, or awkwardness can ensue.

Whatever you thoughts on the issue, no one can deny that social web sites have changed the way we communicate and subsequently converse in-person. But what fun is in-person conversation if all of life’s announcements were previously made public in 140 keystrokes or less?