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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is Technology and Online Social Networks Making us Less Social?

I was scanning through a local forum the other day and came across a topic header which posed the question of whether technology was making us less social?  It's a great question to ask.  Some of the responses spoke of preferences for people to want to receive text messages rather than phone calls, reduced customer service, so forth an so on.  In all honesty, there really isn't a viable means to actually measure this question and the idea of 'less social' is purely speculative in my opinion.  The better questions are whether technology is increasing our interactions and how is that changing.

The truth is that interactions online are actually measurable and there is very interesting data that is available.  Of the roughly 137 million users in US (roughly 500 million worldwide) on Facebook alone, statistics show that users typically stop by daily.  One of the biggest components to any of these services (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc.) is the ability to 'share' information with others in real-time.  We are seeing this component built in more and more to things we use everyday such as smartphones (iPhone, Droids, Palm OS, etc.), ereaders (Kindle, Nookcolor), even our TV's and Blu-ray players.  If I see a news article on my phone, I can easily share that with others with a tap of the screen.  I can even share photos at Disney to others immediately while at the park which I actually did recently.  I can easily rate Netflix movies on my blu-ray player instantly letting others know my recommendations.  And the list goes on and on.  So, if anything, my 'interactions' have actually increased.  In the past, doing any of this would have required me to either get on the phone or tell the person the next time I saw them which would have most likely been forgotten by then.

Then there is the business world.  This is the area where I see huge advances in improvements to serving customers through technology.  One of the things I hate to do is call the customer service line and tediously navigate through the labyrinth  of menus or wait on hold forever.  Now there are online chat options for support.  I love this when I need a question answered in most cases.  For technical support questions not only can I have a print out of the steps I might need to correct the issue, but I can share better detailed information for the support person.  There are usually far less delays in getting someone as well.  Likewise, support forums users provide their experiences, issues, and resolutions which provides a great way to find resolutions.  In these cases you've now taken the 'support' department and expanded it by empowering users to share their findings with others. 

Are there 'pitfalls' in the way in which some use technology which reduces their physical interactions with others?  Absolutely.  One of the biggest problems I see being the reason is the lack of properly educating people on how to properly use these new tools.  We've all just been left to 'figure it out', and the most important places to incorporate these tools and teach young people which is schools; often shy away from these tools and incorporating them into daily education mostly due to fear of misuse and understanding at the educator level.  Take for example email.  Every student in school today will undoubtedly be using email within their jobs in the future.  Where do they learn to use email?  Either at home by just being given an account with little or no direction at all in proper use or nowhere.  Why don't students have school provided email accounts?  The benefits are enormous and better prepares students for the future by properly teaching them to use organization provided email.  You actually don't even need much today to put this in place.  If it is a financial issue and one had to choose between a TV and a computer (most have them) and internet (about $30/month), take the computer and internet.  The information and uses are far superior.  In fact, schools can provide this today for next near nothing through services like Google Apps for Education.  Ok, enough of my education rant.

The other issue I often see is that we view the online world as something entirely different and over-consumption can in fact cause people to become 'disconnected'.  Take video games for example.  It's very cool that I can play a game with others all over the world at the same time.  But playing the same violent game for hours and days on end can cause people to become disconnected to the reality of the harm they can cause others.  So should parents monitor and place boundaries on video game play?  Absolutely, and they should also reinforce the values of treating others with respect. 

Granted, just like any technology tool; people will use them improperly and inappropriately.  It's almost tradition around this time of year for someone to sit on the copy machine at the office party isn't it?  Someone will undoubtedly post something online that may hurt another, but haven't hand-passed notes done the same in the past?  The truth is that they have.  So the technology isn't the issue but rather just common breakdowns in making good social decisions.

How is technology improving your interactions in personal or business life?
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