When it comes to social media, I typically cover business and marketing related issues. Yet today I'm going to take a slightly different angle and ponder the impact that social media is having on interpersonal social skills. Facebook has well and truly entrenched itself into the Australian way of life, and in a few short years has drastically changed what it means to 'socialise'. But has it influenced social norms in a positive or negative manner? Has it made us more social creatures, or are we now connecting in a more superficial manner? That's the topic for today.
First, let's have a look at how social media has affected social relationships in a positive manner.
Inclusion via Social Media
Most of my friends are relatively technically savvy, typically as a result of using technology within an office environment. They utilise email heavily. They're comfortable transacting via the Internet. And like most younger Australians, they integrate social media into their daily lives (Facebook in particular). In fact, social media has become a primary tool in the facilitation of their social lives.
My view is that Facebook socialites maximise their level of social inclusion. While wall posts and chat sessions may be relatively superficial forms of social connectivity, they provide low maintenance channels for people to stay in touch with friends they may have otherwise drifted away from (think former work colleagues). Friendships last longer, even if they lack real depth.
Furthermore, by now Facebook is the preeminent tool for the organisation of informal social events. Email often supports Facebook event invitations, but Facebook has become the default. And the reason is simple – it's the easiest way to do it. Unlike email addresses and phone numbers, Facebook contact details don't change. Just create your page, send your invitations and you're done.
If you're not on Facebook, or if you rarely check it, you're likely to miss event invitations altogether. I can think of two friends in particular who have inadvertently been excluded from social events simply because they missed the invitations on Facebook. And of course, what we're talking about here is at the very minor end of the social inclusion scale.
At the most extreme end, social media can help the most isolated of individuals feel a level of inclusion. The recent case of bullied school kid Casey Heynes is the perfect example. A few weeks ago Casey didn't have a friend in the world (aside from his sister). Today he has a Facebook page with close to 200,000 fans after a video of him standing up to bully went viral. And it's hard not to feel glad that Casey has found a support network, even if it is a virtual one.
So I think we've established that social media can have a positive impact on social relations. But of course, there are some negatives…
Exclusion via Social Media
We've all got friends who are obsessed with Facebook. You know the type… they make multiple postings every day. They check their feed on an hourly basis. But at what point does a Facebook obsession begin to become detrimental to an individual's social behaviour in real life. The scenario presented itself to me a few weeks back whilst having lunch with a few friends. One friend was only slightly more engaged with the actual conversation around the table as they were with a conversation happening within Facebook. Now this didn't bother me, but another one of my friends commented that it was incredibly rude to regularly engage in online conversations (to the exclusions of others) while in a real life social scenario.
Which poses the question of whether social media is eroding away what is believed to be proper social behaviour?
I don't think so personally. I suspect it's merely an evolving social trend. Firstly, we're constantly connected to social media now with our smart phones by our sides. Which means we've got more cause for distraction. We're also increasingly becoming masters of multi-tasking. We listen to iPods while reading a book or the news on the train. We browse the web, chat with friends on Facebook and watch TV at the same time. So is it any surprise that we socialise both virtually and physically at the same time? I don't think so.
In reality I think it's simply a sign of shifting social norms. It wasn't that long ago that it was considered rude to answer a mobile phone on a train. Now, I'd be surprised if less than 40% of people on a peak hour train aren't engaging with their phone in some way. Likewise, I expect barriers between virtual and physical socialising to break down. Facebook have already set the wheels in motion with their Places feature. We're probably not that far away from the day when people at the same venue chat via Facebook as opposed to crossing a crowded room to chat in person. Heck, Gen Y'ers & Z'ers probably already do it.
So that's my take. What do you think? Are we fundamentally a more social society due to the advent of social media? Or is it responsible for the decay of important social norms?