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article imageOp-Ed: Social media: friend or foe?

By Kyle Smith     Jun 13, 2013 in Technology
The popularity of social media is on the up and up: Facebook alone boasts over one billion active users. But is this a good thing? Is the social shift towards virtual communication a socially beneficial choice? Kyle Smith investigates.
Communication is a fundamental human requirement engrained into the psyche of every human; traversing cultures, languages and national boundaries. The progression and advances of technology now enable society to connect in unprecedented ways. Social media is a rapidly-developing technology enabling users to connect with long-lost friends; make new connections; and globally share, seek, and view media content. As such, the calibre of the possible effects from using social media is not yet entirely known. Just what are the implications social media has on interpersonal relationships?
Due to the ease and accessibility of social networking services (SNSs), social networking is quickly becoming the most common activity for today's children and teens. Due to this dramatic increase in popularity, it should come as little surprise that a large majority of socially connected people within society conduct the majority of their social networking via SNSs. While SNSs promote and encourage social interaction, could they in fact be resulting in a society of socially disconnected citizens? The argument at hand is that with increased social interaction via electronic means (SNSs such as Facebook) physical social interaction—real ‘face-time’— in interpersonal relationships decreases. The decrease in real-world communication—and the growing popularity of communication via SNSs—can lead to shallower relationships and a broad decrease in communication skills. While the façade of social ‘connectedness’ is exuded through either a large number of ‘Facebook friends’, or getting lots of ‘likes’ on photos, the actual instances of people feeling adequately connected to their friends and broader society can often be quite low. As well, the quality of any number of relationships cultivated or sustained through SNSs is likely to be severely lower than that of interpersonal relationships cultivated or sustained in the ‘real world’. This can especially be found in the early stages of close interpersonal relationships between students in high school as they traverse the initial stages of intimate relationships at a greatly increased pace due to the presence of social media and mobile communication devices, thus resulting in relationships built on fragile and often superficial foundations. This ‘pseudo-connection’ can, in some cases, result in feelings of social isolation. However, while SNSs can be counter-productive when implemented as the sole medium for the cultivation and sustenance of interpersonal relationships, there is a place for SNSs within a healthy, balanced society. When used in moderation, SNSs promote networking and connectedness, genuinely assisting in cultivating and sustaining lasting interpersonal relations, as there is no variation differences of interaction between offline and online ‘friends’. The key is balance and moderation –users should harness SNSs to communicate and network effectively to progress real-world ‘face-to-face’ relationships.
A fundamental concept underlying the features and capabilities of new communication technologies (NCTs) is the creation of new relationships between subjects or users of the technology. In this way SNSs conform to the definition of an NCT. Indeed, SNSs such as Facebook do enable complete strangers to communicate and build relationships through networking. The Small World theory concludes after a series of experiments that arbitrarily selected people will be connected each to another through a series of network chains. SNSs make this process of networking easier and more practical through electronic means. Users are able to reconnect with long lost friends which prior to SNSs would have been an excessively harder task.
Due to the increasing ease and ability of networking through SNSs, is it possible that despite our growing number of ‘friends’ users have on their SNS accounts, the relationships between the users themselves is deteriorating? This comes about primarily due to the decreasing physical time spent communicating in the presence of our subject, and the increasing virtual time being spent communicating, one user with another. This situation eventuates with more ‘friends’ online of a lesser quality, and fewer ‘real’ friends of greater quality in the ‘real world’. Communication via SNSs is not necessarily a negative or detrimental communication method except in extremis. The flow-on effects of generally shallower relationships can range from social reclusion to feelings of isolation and depression. Sociology theories such as the Social Penetration Theory; the Uncertainty Reduction Theory; and the Social Exchange Theory, all attempt to explain various stages of relationship development. Conceived before the onset of SNSs, the theories add a new dimension to the perceived detriments of SNS-encouraged shallow relationships within the pretexts of interpersonal relationships. While SNSs may lead to shallower relationships, they nevertheless do encourage the cultivation of new relationships which may not have occurred without the aid of SNSs. This then allows (according to the above three sociological theories) strangers to initiate the exchange of information, with varying levels of privacy divulgence, with each other. If the perceived mutual benefits outweigh the perceived cost of greater vulnerability, the process – such as social penetration – will continue, eventually leading to the sustenance of stronger, more meaningful relationships. Whether the relationships themselves are built on weak, superficial foundations however, is another matter. As well, with the increase in network friends, there is an increased probability that in times of crisis, the user may have a greater pool of friends on which they may rely on for social support, peer counselling and other mediative forms of interaction. However despite this increased probability, the fact remains that the majority of those friendships will be too shallow to solicit such interaction or comfort. This highlights the importance of real-world relations of depth and meaning where, in times of personal crisis, friends may genuinely be able to offer a depth of support services to one another.
The instantaneous nature of many SNSs has the ability to withdraw any sense of satisfaction or intrinsic gratification users may gain from communicating via the SNSs. An experiment conducted in 2000 revealed higher gratification (measured by gratification utility measures) levels were obtained when subjects communicated through voice-orientated interpersonal media such as the telephone, than text-based interpersonal media such as texting or email. They also found a direct correlation between the interpersonal medium used and the development stages of interpersonal relationships. While the instant nature of SNSs may appear to be gratifying in terms of connectivity and accessibility, it is in fact less gratifying as traditional interpersonal communicative methods such as using the telephone. It might be stated that the entire purpose of developing relationships is for gratification – both self- and communal-gratification – thus bringing into question the validity and purpose of SNSs based (cultivated or sustained) relationships. The above experiment concludes that the value of users’ social media experience via SNS is nominal by comparison to the value obtained by using traditional interpersonal media, such as the telephone.
Friendships are one type of interpersonal relationship influenced and affected through the use of SNSs to cultivate and sustain the relationship. However exactly how are intimate interpersonal relationships affected? There is evidence to suggest that SNSs are not suitable for sustaining intimate relationships, and furthermore that the amount of time spent communicating via SNSs within an intimate interpersonal relationship does not correlate with the quality of the relationship. This lends itself to suggest that SNSs have little constructive purpose within intimate relationships other than its use of networking to connect the two users, prior to becoming intimate.
Intimate relationships depend greatly on thorough communication and mutual understanding between two partners. This communication traditionally was exchanged through face-to-face interaction, including verbal and nonverbal methods of communication during discussions – verbal speech, body language, subtle verbal variation and nonverbal cues. However, when intimate couples communicate through ‘computer-mediated means’ (such as via SNSs) the nonverbal communicative aspect is not communicated, leading to the nonverbal communication having to be verbalised, or lost. The neglected linguistic and textual cues form a strong basis for misunderstanding and consequently relationship trouble through miscommunication.
As always, it is important not to overgeneralise with broad statements relating to communication modalities and their perceived characteristics or usefulness. SNSs have their purpose and within a moderate society they aid effective communication. They have the ability to connect users through networking allowing the communication between users which may not have been initiated otherwise. While SNSs have the ability to cultivate and sustain relationships, its effectiveness is questionable. The usefulness in cultivating a multitude of shallow interpersonal relationships through SNSs does not result in apparent constructive or positive results with regards to friendships. When used in intimate relationships, their usability should be limited and certainly not relied upon to sustain the intimate relationship due to the poor communicative ability to convey nonverbal aspects of communication. However SNSs can be constructive when used to connect potential intimate users, and in moderation to sustain friendships. SNSs therefore have their place in a socially connected society, though should not be depended upon as the sole communicative method.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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