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Are Social Web Sites Spoiling In-Person Conversation?

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[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?

20 Responses to “Are Social Web Sites Spoiling In-Person Conversation?”

  1. Profound. I have been thinking about this the past few weeks- not just Social Networks, even emails, chats and the ubiquitous mobile phone. I don’t know of other people but I have started hearing my phone ring all of the time! Sometimes it becomes so bad I have to check my phone twice within a minute!!

    I guess soon we will have a whole new earning potential for the psychiatrist community! The person who talks too little but everybody knows everything about him and at times he is see as repeating things…

    Manish Pahuja

  2. In a way perhaps? Social websites are for you to pool in your network with friends or aquaintances who you’re not close with and to establish a closer relationship. Its a good way to maintain social network but for really keeping in touch with friends takes effort. I guess if you meant that people take social sites for granted and stop hanging out together that might make sense but then again you can always use these social websites to ask friends who you haven’t contacted for a long time out no?

  3. Are we really still having these “bad behavior must mean bad tools” conversations? Seriously?

    If your use of Facebook means you have nothing to talk about, I’d say that’s not caused by social networks.

  4. I think this post makes a great point: What’s the point of communicating in person anymore, when we’ve gotten everything out online?

    I also find it incredibly rude when people decide to tweet on their phones when they’re right in front of you. It’s like, “Tweet on your own time, please.”

    Nevertheless, social networks are still something to be enjoyed. People just need a little social media netiquette.

    Chris Gray
    Twitter ID: @goglobalwebs

  5. Online Social Networks allow us to fill the space in between face-to-face meetings. IMO if you run into someone and have nothing to talk about because you’ve already run out of topic, well that was not a good friendship to start with!

  6. lljc00

    There’s a parallel to this with email and working –
    co-worker, passing in hallway – “Did you get my email on the TPS report”
    me – “I havent read it”
    co-worker – “Can you read it and get back to me?”
    me – “Why dont you just ask me what it is you want to know? You have me right here in front of you!?!”

  7. The Shadow

    Bizarre post pointing to either abuse of social networking, reclusive detachment or addictive behavior.

    I keep up and reconnect with friends via social networking.

    The subjects that surface via FB, etc, if anything, serve as a jumping off point for real human conversation that goes so much deeper.

    The problem is not the medium, it’s the person.

  8. I don’t know why people keep writing articles about “is the Internet making us bad people?” If in-person conversation is awkward, it’s because you and that person have an awkward relationship, not because you tweet everything. If someone is being rude by texting and Facebooking in your presence, tell them to cut it out. If a person seriously starts blaming the Internet for their social problems, then they probably have some deep-rooted social issues already.

  9. Perhaps we can re-frame the question: Are social websites *changing* in-person communication? How?

    Using the word ‘Spoiling’ is making a relativistic judgment about how we communicate.
    The telegraph was really a rudimentary version of twitter. Sending someone 140-characters was a god-send!
    The telephone then stripped away 55% of our communicative ability by eliminating body language.

    I would argue that if social web sites are indeed spoiling in-person communication, it could say much more about the quality of those personal relationships than the merits of the mode of communication.

  10. I’ve observed the following trends:

    1) The fact that you keep posting your life nuggets online brings out more topics of discussion which may not have come up otherwise when you meet the person face-face

    2) The fact that posters post their nuggets online, makes them more open to conversation about ‘somewhat sensitive’ things which they would have never talked about before the facebook/twitter era

    3) The fact that posters know many readers will read their life online makes readers bolder in asking questions when they meet the poster in real life.

    It is almost as if these sites have suddenly made our society more open and talk about things that in pre SNS era were not discussed much. Suddenly, such things have become ‘acceptable’ because ‘oh, that’s just facebook’

  11. I suggest a reading of “When A Toy Comes Alive: A study of computers in a material culture” (Fielding University, 1998 dissertation – sociology and information technology)

    Those who design the social networking tools and the computers they run on are “not us”. Rather, they are socially impaired technicians and prefer an “emotionally controlled” environment. Like it or not, computer interfaces are silent, emotionless and unskilled at thoughtful human interaction. The social networking products of today are really designed to keep us safe from real world interactions.

  12. I think electronic communication is wonderful. I have several close friends that I have never met in person. Also, I have worked with people on countless projects via email. I conduct most business by email.

    I think, in person, there should never be a television or radio on where people are visiting or conversing, such as in a home or restaurant. I refuse to eat at restaurants that have televisions. I hate going to visit at relatives’ homes for a holiday, and they have the television playing. It is insulting and degrading.

    My experience has been that I can size up a person very well within an email or a few emails. I can tell if the person is intelligent or not, if the person is educated or not, if he or she has mental or personal problems, etc. I do not date a person until I have exchanged some emails. I do not agree to take on clients until we have exchanged some emails. A person’s writing tells so much about them — it gets to the essence that may be masked by appearance.

    I have a great deal of fun on the internet, too. I love that I can participate in various discussions with people from all over the world — such as this one. I love finding new music to download for free, great videos to watch, new ideas to read about. The internet is what you make it. It is as great and useful and wonderful as you want it to be.

  13. Ken B

    I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing another disturbing thing: getting to know more about casual friends and colleagues via Facebook and realizing there are plenty of things I don’t like about them. Their tastes, the content of their public comments, the idiotic FB applications they play with, their quirks upon finding themselves newly single, etc., can all make me wish to back away, and I don’t think this would have happened so quickly in “real” life. And often the very fact that a friend posts frequent trivial Facebook status updates (ala Twitter) makes me wonder — sometimes to my great surprise — whether they’re really a narcissistic twit with too much time on their hands and not enough real human contact.

    The opposite happens too: some people I only know tentatively from work have been pleasant surprises, so maybe it balances out.

    But the worst was a guy who wished his wife happy anniversary via Facebook — and received a reply from his wife the same way. It not only cheapens the sentiment, it does so in plain view of all their friends, and the first thing a casual observer wonders is “What kind of a marriage is that?” (If I knew them well, I may not wonder, but otherwise…)

    And then there are the folks who fail to reply to an oldfangled email on a business matter or a friendly inquiry at the same time you notice them yammering away on Facebook. I know I’ve hesitated to post anything to FB when I know I owe someone a reply, lest they think I’m ignoring them.

    Intimacy is not always good. Generalized, synthesized intimacy may be highly overrated.

    • Great comment, you absolutely nailed it. I too am often surprised that the people I’ve known so well turn out to be quite different when given a medium such as FB or Twitter to broadcast themselves.

      Another problem with FB is the photo-tagging aspect. My friends and family now need to think twice about their photos since they know they will be on FB and everyone can see them. There just isn’t the spontaneity anymore while taking pictures.

      • Staff

        Valid arguments–to much “thoughtless & unattractive” information can turn your stomach.

        Perhaps we need to place more emphasis on social media etiquette!

        The downside of hyperconnected communities…


  14. “The Internet was designed to share information, not emotions.”

    I have to disagree, if only because ’emotions’ ARE a form of information. In fact, though I don’t feel this way personally, I Think that most web users approach their webtime emotionally. True, there are many of us who use the thing for research, networking, publishing and so on, but the vast majority of users are not us. They are playing with their friends via some tech. (Geez, even my mom does that and she’s 72.)

    Still, it is somewhat distracting/disheartening watching my son texting during our weekly dinner appts. I finally asked him one night what he was doing. ‘I’m telling Ty (his twin brother) everything we’re saying. He wants to be here.’

    I am working on my distraction/disheartening level.