Are we becoming more or less sociable because of social networks and the web?

Mobile phone use as a percentage of population...
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I grew up in an era when the television was one of the key focuses. We gathered to watch matches, major events, news programs, various popular TV shows (e.g. Italy losing 4-1 to Brazil in 1970, The First Man Landing on the Moon, Hawaii-5-0 (“Book ‘im Dano”), Dallas: who shot JR?, Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France 1987, etc). I also started my work career without mobile phones – when you met someone there far less distractions. And when you met someone socially they did not have a mobile phone.

This has all changed. In the home people are watching program reruns on their laptops. When they watch television they may also be on facebook, twitter, whatever. When we meet people more and more of them they take phone calls and monitor email/ social networks. When we meet at work people are carrying a mobile and are generally online – again monitoring inbound communications or streams of information e.g twitter, yammer, etc.

Is this anti social or pro social?

Are people being more sociable because they are open to more inbound communications for more time e.g. watching the news on television but responding to facebook posting at the same time? Are they more sociable because they are not limiting themselves to the people in their physical presence? Or are people being less sociable – because they are not focusing exclusively on the people in their immediate physical presence?

People are still limited by their ability to process information e.g. Participating in the actual conversation taking place, analysing and responding to other electronic communications, picking up and responding to the emotional reactions, managing their own emotions, committing some content to memory, etc. So, given these constraints, if there are five ongoing interactions in parallel they cannot all be getting full attention.

I do not see much point in saying that what’s happening is wrong. I do not see the technology slowing down. It becomes more pervasive by the day and more accessible. Full broadband coverage and smart phones as the norm – puts everyone online all the time. Web TV is happening – watch what you want, when you want, interact with whomsoever you like in parallel.

The traditional social skills – interacting with people in a room, by the side of a football pitch, coming out of church – are important. They are part of being human, being a member of a particular society, being able to interact, being able to build real relationships. But increasingly virtual meetings and interactions are taking place in parallel with these physical social interactions – and they may be work or personal or both.

I think the challenge is to promote an awareness and understanding of what is taking place. Younger people who have only known the always online existence may miss out on a quality of interaction which was taken for granted in previous generations. Being positive about developments must also say to older generations that there is an opportunity for far wider, less physically constrained, social relations through adopting the new technologies and social norms.

Without doubt there are and there will be many victims of what is now taking place – an environment racing ahead, less time to focus on the individual, more difficult than ever to catch up. In terms of providing support we need to relook at how we identify victims and how we can bring them back into this changing social world.

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