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Social Media – How New Tech Impacts our Conversation (Part 2 of 3)
Social media has corrupted our way of thinking and expressing ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I find the term In Real Life (IRL) a little off-putting. At some level, it supposes that everything online is unreal. In the time of the virtual game, Second Life, we had the one life offline and the other online. But there’s no doubt that the online life not only has an impact on our lives offline. It’s become intermingled. You don’t use a business card any longer, you send your LinkedIn profile. You chat by editable text messages even when you might be in the same physical place. In a world where the on- and off-line are seemingly merging, it’s important that we lean into the notions of self-awareness and self-knowledge not to get lost in the confusion or sucked into the dark side of social. We need to resist the facility of the media and dig in to our social human instincts for in-person connection.
This is the second of three segments that will investigate the role of ‘new’ technology in impacting/harming our ability to have more meaningful conversation. This first article (see here) focused on the smartphone, the Internet and other corollary tech. In this section, I’ll be looking specifically at social media. For the third segment (next week), we’ll be zeroing on the effects and opportunities with Artificial Intelligence. At the end of this piece, you’ll find five actionable points with regard to your social media usage.
What is social media?
I will start by defining what I mean by social media since there are various ways to identify and classify what they are. The Merriam-Webster site provides the following definition: Social media are “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” Essentially, social media is an umbrella term for a vast swathe of sites with eleven different categories, as I count them. There are plenty of the social media platforms that fall into multiple categories (not to forget those larger corporations that own multiple sites or applications). As they’ve evolved over time, many of these platforms have increased and/or changed functionalities. For example, with Instagram, in addition to the original function for sharing photos, you can now add videos (Reel), have streaming sessions (Live) and stories that disappear after 24 hours.
Eleven categories of social media
Although there are plenty of overlaps, here's how I like to lay out the eleven categories of social media:
social networking for friends and family (Facebook, Snapchat and a slew of less popular sites that struggle under the wingspan of Facebook)
business networking (LinkedIn, Xing, Indeed, Facebook pages, Inside…)
video (eg Youtube, TikTok)
image (Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr)
audio (Spotify, Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces…)
forums (Reddit, Quora…)
blogs (hosted on Wordpress, Blogger…)
microblogs (Twitter, Tumblr, Sina Weibo)
messaging (Whatsapp, WeChat…)
closed-circuit messaging (Slack, Discourse…)
dating (Tinder, Bumble, Grindr…)
When all’s said and done, as many niche networks and categories there may be, the elephant in the room remains… the big F word. The graphic from StatCounter below shows the market share between all the major social media in North America.
How does social media change our conversation?
It is hard to cut decisively the cord between the smartphone and social media in their impact on conversation. For example, as I stated in my prior post, there’s research stating that the mere proximity of a smartphone has a negative impact on our cognitive abilities. Yet, it’s not the object itself, so much as what the object carries, including access to the Internet, real-time access to news, and all the different connections via social media. In the case of the latter, where we log into our social media accounts is not limited to the smartphone. The key point for this article is to examine how social media has specifically affected our conversation. I certainly don’t subscribe to a complete abandonment of social media. Inevitably, social media is a part of our mix of communication channels, that will also include telephone calls, in-person meetings and video conference calls. The amount of social media interaction will differ according to the culture and generation. But, on balance, we know – and the research proves – that social media has considerably hurt our in-person conversations. If you listen to American social psychologist and bestselling author, Jonathan Haidt, he said that the main culprit for this situation where dissent and difference of opinion is no longer tolerated is “Twitter, generalized to the hyper-viralized social media environment.” [Source: Interview by Yascha Mounk with Haidt on Persuasion] I believe the blame extends to the larger patchwork of social media platforms.
Social media & mental health: coincidence or causation?
With the increased penetration of social media usage has come a rise in mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and suicide. As reported by the CDC, for example, the percentage of females aged 10-24 being admitted into hospitals in the US for non-fatal self-harm increased 8.4% annually from 2009 to 2015. The sub-group with the highest annual increase (18.8%) were girls 10-14-years-old, albeit from a lower base. Surely, social media is not entirely to blame. For starters, some portion of the increase can be attributed to higher awareness of mental health and a greater willingness among the younger generations to talk about it. I would also argue that a part of that ill health comes from a lack of human touch and soul-to-soul conversation, that’s come from overuse of digital communication compounded by enforced isolation through the pandemic. The spike in mental health issues during the 2020-2022 lockdowns has been widely reported. For example, the number of U.S. emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by teen girls jumped during the COVID-19 pandemic by as much as 51%, according to a report released in May 2021 by the CDC. And being isolated in homes, the temptation of spending more time on social media to have more social interaction would only have worsened an already challenging situation. The toxic effects of social media have been well exposed by numerous papers. And more and more people, up and down the age scale, are aware of that toxicity. Will Elon Musk’s new stewardship at Twitter make it a better place? Given where we are with our general mental health and the habits we’ve developed on social media, I’m pessimistic.
The dopamine hit versus boredom
Much like – and thanks to – the Internet connection, we have become accustomed, if not addicted, to the immediacy of a response. The speed of communication and the expectation of speedy responses has preyed on our ability to think freely. Even as we stay away from online, we are subconsciously aware of the pile of emails and communications that are arriving in our absence. And, when we check online – on average 96 times per day for Americans – we get to see the number of messages we’ve received (“I’m in demand”) and how many likes a post has received (“I’m popular”). It’s a veritable dopamine hit. It’s plain to see that whenever there’s a pause in the real world, people jump on their phones. This will happen for a 30-second wait for the red light to turn green or a short queue at the till. Basically any lull invites the phone. And in social interactions, quick to judge a conversation as uninteresting, people are prepared to whip out their phone. Only the slightest excuse is ever needed. Already in 2015, in this study published by the Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, it was reported that 62% of people admitted to using their phone while in the presence of others. Much like the obsession of efficiencies at work, we fill our time with a hit of dopamine rather than face boredom. In solitary instances, it’s a way to avoid being with oneself. We’d rather seek the ‘excitement’ available online than suffer the slower, messier and sometimes less stimulating conversations. These take work and attention. Scrolling through a social media page is as addictive as it is lazy.
The Like Me button
The social media world is generally about having a performative profile where you get to present the best image (possibly retouched) with an edited caption or message. Ever since the introduction of the Like button by Facebook (quickly followed by Twitter) in 2009, it all feeds into some kind of massive popularity contest. Yes, there are now other buttons, but the go-to remains that quick and easy thumbs up.
When they introduced new buttons alongside the LIKE, two were ‘negative’: sad and angry. But most often, the de facto sentiment when using these two buttons on the far right is that I’m sad or angry for you. In any event, I have to believe that the bulk of the time there is no affective empathic response. And there is no thumbs down, a button that would indicate a level of disagreement or displeasure. In these choices, Facebook is signaling the desire to avoid contradiction.
On YouTube, there’s a thumbs down, however, only the number of up votes is displayed (darkened hand), while the number of down votes is hidden. YET, according to the algorithm, the down votes show a form of engagement (even negative) that gives a pulse of attention. The real thumbs down is not to watch it and not to vote at all.
The standout effects of Twitter
With Twitter going private and under the helm of the free-wheeling, free speech advocate, Elon Musk, one has to believe that important changes will be coming down the line. Until now, Twitter has stuck with its Like button (that shows up as a heart). Assuming you’re logged in, it’s dead simple to like. It’s also painless to retweet (share) without need for a comment (or even reading the clickable link in the tweet). And, as shown in the tweet stats below for a recent and popular Elon Musk tweet, less than 5% of the likers added a comment. And, knowing that the maximum number of characters is 280, these are mostly very short messages, sprinkled in with images, GIFS and emojis.
As argued by Haidt, Twitter is its own beast. In the 4Q2021 report, Twitter reported that it has 217 million global monetizable daily active users (mDAU). That’s out of 1.3 billion accounts, where 391 million Twitter accounts have no followers at all. Back in 2014, it was reported that 44% of registered users had never tweeted. In a 2017 study from University of Southern California and University of Indiana, it was estimated that there were up to 48 million bots ‘manning’ accounts, which would represent at the high end of the range, 15% of active accounts. Given these details, it’s no wonder that Twitter is, at best, hit or miss. At worse, it’s a toxic environment, where one can see the culture war being played out in public. [See more Twitter stats here] As many will remark, Twitter is far from a safe space. We’ll have to wait to see what fragrance Musk will add to the platform.
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Text chat over in-person conversation
The messaging apps provide a channel of communication. In the absence of no other ways of contact, they’re surely useful. But, where’s the limit? Research from LivePerson in 2017 showed that the younger generations (Gen Z and Millennials) across six countries, “communicate with others more digitally than in person (65%). This percentage is even higher in English-speaking countries, with the US (73.7%) and UK (74.4%) relying more heavily on digital channels for communication.” It may not be a real addiction, but our minds are being easily tricked. The dopamine hit, especially in an age of mental health issues, is hard to resist. But, if we’re to regain resilience, strengthen the fiber of our human connection, rebuild community and improve our empathy, we must be intentional in our desire to return to more face-to-face conversation.
Messaging… making it real versus getting it right
Much has been written about the way people tend to use the messaging apps in different ways according to culture and generation, etc. There are two important aspects to highlight. The first is that, in messaging, we are focused on the right message, not necessarily the real message. It's more about the right time versus real-time. By allowing time to compose a message, you can regain composure, try to figure out what you ought to say, edit and adjust. As time goes along, maybe the quickfire emotion blows over. Or maybe it stokes doubt and/or raises the blood pressure? The problem is that these feelings are not being properly aired. Just as political correctness has a tendency to sanitize our language, asynchronous delays in our typed messages may present the right words, but not the real feelings.
The second point is that we are losing our ability to interact on human level, face to face with quirks and imperfections, with ums and mistakes. Stanley Behrman tweeted in 2013:
“Texting is a brilliant way to miscommunicate how you feel, and misinterpret what other people mean.”
When someone writes a message that says, “Sure,” it’s hard to gauge the level of certitude. Is it coming with eyes raised to the ceiling, a snarky smirk, or as a genuine agreement? Even when we think we are sending the “right” message, it is entirely too easy to misread what’s being said. The right punctuation (which doesn’t mean grammatically correct, but adjusted for social media) and emoticons are more cognitive signals than spontaneous real-time emotions.
LIFO – Last In, First Out
Some of you might recognize this inventory accounting term: LIFO. Essentially, it means that the last item to be received in the warehouse is the first one to be sent out when fulfilling the next order. For our purposes, this can also apply to how we are influenced by the last thing we read, be it information, news or a message from a friend, when we engage in our next conversation. To the extent social media is increasingly the way people get their news, the immediate impact on our next discussion is both first and second degree. In other words, it will give a bias to our knowledge and will impact our cognitive abilities. I particularly like the term: “borrowed conviction” as a way to describe this LIFO information (cited by @unseenvalue on Twitter).
Social media isn’t just a media…
With the dizzying amount of content being uploaded to social media, it’s no wonder that (a) we only see a fraction of what’s out there, and (b) most of what we publish isn’t seen as much as we might hope. For example, with 500 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute (source: Brandwatch), it’s clear that we must rely on the network effect and algorithms to help us find out “what’s happening.” And what occurs on social media doesn’t just stay online. That content is absolutely brought into our real-life conversations. How often does someone bring out the phone at mealtime to share an image, a funny video or to verify a fact? Social media is not just a media; it becomes a topic of conversation, a way to fill time, a source of entertainment and/or a proof of (self-) importance. Next, we’re going to look at some of the features and functionalities of social media and how they impact our in-person conversations.
The global community illusion
Social media is brilliant for connecting old friends and classmates who’ve changed countries, grandparents with their grandchildren who live miles away. If you’ve got some exotic hobby, you’ll be bound to find others out there with the same passion. Sitting in a tiny village or, even worse, alone in a big city, you can still feel part of a global community. YET, the risk is believing that the online community is sufficient. There’s a saying that goes: “Think global, act local.” It’s my strong conviction, as I lay out in my piece on our loss of common sense, that we’ve shied away from our duty to act locally. With the feelgood concept of being part of a global community, the reality is that we live in towns, we work with people, we have different experiences and points of view, and we sweat and smell. We’re all imperfect. Yes, dating apps can help to meet new partners. But how real or rehearsed is our presentation? Encounters and relationships are practiced in the flesh. If we run away from the messiness of the difficult conversations in locus, we’ll be left with a largely superficial and unfulfilling existence.
Legacy versus the disappearing act
Depending on how well you manage your settings, random people and prospective recruiters may be able to see your online activity. Having your teenage pranks and mindset put on display for the world to see, that might last for a lifetime, will prey on one’s mind. No doubt there’s a strong tendency to portray one’s best side, but what that constitutes will likely change over time. What looked like a perfect prom dress may date over time. A funny joke in a teenager’s mind might turn less funny as one ages. How you present yourself online will absolutely become a talking point “in real life”. It typically constitutes who you wish to be, rather than your reality.
Exactly because of the concern of the permanence of our online presence, there are a number of ways to have ephemeral exchanges (most notably Snapchat, but also Instagram and Facebook Stories). At some level, this is closer to a face-to-face conversation in that it is an exchange at a moment in time. However, even the Instagram Story or Snapchat image, which have a time-limited lifespan, can be screen-grabbed for posterity. Notwithstanding the ability to surreptitiously record an in-person conversation, a face-to-face encounter happens in real time with the words, emotions and expressions that occur in that moment. The warmth of a genuine smile, the unmistakable flinch, irrepressible fidget or glint of a tear. These subtle clues, nuances and cues require practice to pick up and references to be aware of. It’s part of the sophistication of our communication. In those moments of deeper understanding, we’re developing stronger connections, a stepping-stone toward trust. There’s no hiding behind a screen. There’s no multi-tasking. For real conversation, you have to be present and accountable for what you say. Once it’s completed, it becomes a shared memory between the parties who were there.
One of the keys to democracy is anonymity. It’s also been one of the devices that has unlocked all sorts of venom online. Notwithstanding the presence of bots, about which we’ll be discussing in the next segment, the lack of responsibility behind anonymous accounts has heightened the vitriol online. People no longer worry about being accountable because they can tweet behind a mirage.
I add that the trend in universities toward anonymous reporting, which has been instituted at 60% of British universities (see this Economist article), is filled with good intentions, but is not healthy for dissension or robust conversation.
Another of the implicit laws of social media is the notion of reciprocity. With some social networks, the connection must be mutual (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn). There are networks where you can follow someone (Instagram, Twitter) but the other person doesn’t need to follow back.* However, for many, they’ll follow back almost as a courtesy, regardless of any real interest to do so. One of the underlying problems of this form of reciprocity is that it leads people to game the system. They will cycle through people merely to see who follows back in order to increase the number of followers. Another issue is that the follow back is substantially superficial. There’s no need for a value exchange. There’s certainly little intention to pay attention to one another. These are two traits that we can see happening IRL conversations as well.
A vocabulary and new ways of being
Without it being on purpose, we’ve developed a whole new vocabulary. How we operate online and how we manage our presence in social media absolutely becomes part of our narrative offline. It impacts us, whether that’s our mental health, verbal communication skills or sense of self. Meaningful conversations aren’t just a way to connect deeply with others. They’re a way to learn about oneself, with and from others. Our energies and general civility depend on them. When we use social media, we need to be distinctly more aware of just how much they’ve altered our way of being.
In a world where the on- and off-line are seemingly merging, it’s important that we lean into the notions of self-awareness and self-knowledge not to get lost in the confusion or sucked into the dark side of social. We need to resist the facility of the media and dig in to our social human instincts for in-person connection.
Five things to do right now to help create a healthier environment for more meaningful conversation:
You need not necessarily use the nuclear option of eliminating all social media. Depending on your situation, some are genuinely useful. It’s really about getting on top of your usage, such that you are in control rather than being its victim and subject to too many unintended consequences.
Check the notifications for all your social media apps. I recommend turning off all sounds, banners and badges.
Remove from your smartphone all but the essential social media you wish to keep.
Whenever you are aware of any important topics – for example, when you need to apologize or you feel upset – if it’s at all possible, find a way to meet up in person. Failing that, use the phone. Don’t use messenger apps.
Use discretion when accepting digital invitations. On LinkedIn, for example, I only ever accept people I know and trust. On Facebook, I only want people I know and appreciate. On Whatsapp it’s easy to have too many messages and groups with which to contend. Some groups or activities may be ‘nice to have’ but aren’t really vital. A useful tip on Whatsapp is to mute or archive conversations so that they don’t disrupt you as much.
As a reminder of the importance of our time and to be present while we’re on this short trip on Earth, make sure that in the case of death, your social logins are available to whomever will be taking care of your affairs after you’re gone.
Please lay down any thoughts and reactions, additions or rebuttals you might have to keep the conversation flowing! Thanks for reading and look out for my next episode next Thursday, where I’ll be discussing Artificial Intelligence has been playing a role in shaping our conversations.
*On LinkedIn, you can choose to follow someone, whether or not you know them.
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