My grandma was a social butterfly. Constant contact with various branches of her family tree aside, every other day or so, she'd hop into the tank of a car driven by her pal Dorothy, pick up the other members of their crew, and gossip away the afternoon at the local restaurant. It's a schedule easy to be envious of, especially when you're working a job that requires the sacrifice of leisure time and human contact for the faint glow of a laptop screen.
But was my grandma really that more social than me?
Today alone—and it's not even 2 p.m.—I've texted five different people, chatted on the phone with two, sent close to 50 emails, interacted with probably 20 Facebook updates in some capacity, liked a flurry of Instagram photos, read hundreds of Tweets, and even wrote a few of my own. In reality, I've interacted with more people (“uniques,” in WebTrafficSpeak) in a day than she did over one month.
The ways to communicate are now more bountiful than ever before—they just look and feel different. But what effects are these new methods of communication having on us?
“The capacity to engage in many conversations has increased because you can now do it with so many tools,” says Dr. S. Shyam Sundar, founder of Penn State's Media Effects Research Laboratory, and author of the Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology. “If you have a large enough screen and different apps open, you could be having a Facebook chat with somebody, and a WhatsApp group chat.”
Yet, despite the different bells and whistles that our generation has been afforded through a wide variety of devices and ever-expanding store of apps, there are still only two distinct ways we communicate with one another: one-on-one, or in a group.
The ways to communicate are now more bountiful than ever before—they just look and feel different.
In one-on-one communication—virtually, that means text messages, gchats, Twitter DMs, things of that nature—there is direct engagement occurring due to a call-and-response construction. “Messaging is very seductive because it provides interdependency between messages,” Sundar says. “Each person, when they message, gets an exclusive response to their idiosyncratic questions or concerns at that moment.” This is why almost every app or social media platform contains a direct messaging feature.
Group communication, meanwhile, is the act of conversing with large sub-sections of people at the same time. App-wise, this is KakaoTalk—hugely popular in Asia, and, according to Sundar, about to be the next big thing in America—or WhatsApp, but even Facebook and Twitter fit this mold. Messaging-wise, it's group emails to co-workers, or group texts with friends about that night's plans, before they inevitably splinter off into one-on-one communication. (Both categories differ from mass media, where we're delivered a one-sided message that's honed for generalized consumption. “Message interactivity makes people engage with it over and over because it's asking for individual attention, unlike traditional media where they can take it or leave it,” Sundar says.)
Add that up—I haven't even mentioned LinkedIn or Snapchat yet—and that's a lot to take in on a daily basis. “What this has done, in my view, is increased the social bandwidth people have,” Sundar says.
But bandwidth, when used in the computing parlance, has a threshold before programs start running slowly. Does that happen to our minds when we have dozens of conversations at once? “Technologies have a built-in kind of capacity control,” Sundar says. “If I don't want to have a certain level of conversation, you can control that.” You can “be away” from the chat room, or go invisible, or lock down your profile so that it's only available to certain people. If you're a social butterfly, you can open your virtual self up to everyone. If you're an introvert, you can close it down to a select few.
But, still: Whether or not we can physically and mentally handle the varied avenues of communication, is it good for us?
There have been any number of studies published over the past five years or so—in this, our Post-Tech Era, where we're finally having the necessary and lengthy conversation about What Tech Hath Wrought—that paint a frightening image of the path social media is paving. Facebook makes us sad. Twitter is bad for our relationships. Teens are going online so much they're contracting this new problem called FOMO!
But Sundar doesn't see doom in these peer-reviewed tea leaves. “[Virtual messaging] will never approximate the richness of face-to-face communication,” he says. “But I think, in many ways, these technologies add richness to interpersonal relationships.”
Consider the case of the Dreaded Vacation Photos.
If your friend posts a bunch of vacation photos on Facebook—not you, of course; I'm sure your photos are spectacular and everyone should totally look at them—and you like or comment, well, that's kind of the end of the interaction. The photos have been shown, they've received a response, the circle is complete. And then in subsequent face-to-face interactions, if you're meeting at the bar or making small talk at a party, you can move on, talk about something else. “Some topics are off the table, so to speak, because they're already dealt with,” Sundar says. “Instead, you might talk of something more substantive.” Online communication, therefore, helps clear up the small talk clutter that real-life conversations are constantly inundated with.
"Virtual messaging will never approximate the richness of face-to-face communication. But I think, in many ways, these technologies add richness to interpersonal relationships."
Social media—or, media in general—also shouldn't be looked at in concrete terms as far as what it is. Media, and specific mediums and platforms, evolves as it figures itself out. “The telephone was first invented to transmit opera from one location to another; the radio was meant to broadcast agriculture bulletins to farmers,” Sundar says. “But the users co-opted the technology and it changed.”
The evolving role of Facebook is an ideal 21st-century example of this. When the site was introduced, it was the up-and-coming, better-curated, simpler version of MySpace. Then, it became the dominant social media platform, a one-stop shop for every type of communication. Later, our parents showed up. “If your parents use it, it feels less cool,” Sundar says. “It also disempowers [users] in a way because they are not able to expose themselves fully and freely.”
Enter Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. While these apps have solved the ever-present conundrum of working around the broad reach of authority (that is, the watchful surveillance of your parents), a new hierarchy of mediums requires a learning period for how they're best used. “[Users] are evolving a set of rules of when they would use what,” Sundar says. Have a big announcement for everybody? Write a Facebook post. Want to send some risqué communique to a potential partner? Snapchat away. “It's evolving into a broad suite of tools that addresses different communication needs with different communication partners,” Sundar says.
And more tools are just that: more tools. Sure, maybe we bruise a few fingers trying to get the hang of them, but, soon enough, the good ones—the most appropriate ones—will be placed in the top drawer; the bad ones will end up rusting in the shed. We'll still be chatting with our closest friends, just perhaps not down at the local restaurant. It's not better, not worse, just different.
Well, if this new era of communication allows us to forgo sitting through vacation photo slideshows, it might be a little better.
The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.