Are social networks breeding social isolation?

I recently had a thought provoking note from a buddy, Sheetal Patel, who’s not really a fan of social networking apart from LinkedIn.

He commented that “perhaps this increasing human need to relate is being perpetuated by Web 2.0 enablement technologies standing on (and encouraging even greater dependencies) the shoulders of the mobile phone and the internet”. And he cited some modern examples of how important being or feeling connected is becoming, for example:

  • “Schoolchildren checking mobiles for missed calls & SMS texts every few minutes.”
  • Old style “Internet content writers wanting to be the top search result in internet search engines (disconnected follower-ship)”  versus “the new notion of creating passive ‘as it happens’ Twitter follower-ship.”
  • “Psychologically for people to want to be constantly visible amongst their peers, and as Maslow’s hierarchy might dictate, ultimately perceived as the metaphoric rock/movie star that everyone must follow in every great detail, any way they can, as soon as they can.”

This interests me because of the growing phenomenon of what I refer to as the hive mind experience that many Twitter users have had.

That is where one becomes so used tTwitter_Logo_node_full_image_2o being loosely connected to a large number of people that disconnection from the group induces feelings of mild anxiety or “feeling weird”.  I often joke about it with friends but their laugh sometimes tells me it’s not really a joke – we do feel a bit strange when disconnected from the collective.

We do not know yet what kind of impact this level of connectedness will have on social interaction.  But there is already evidence that this connectedness enables mob-like activity – such as mobilizing people for a cause (e.g. Cotton On Kids or Motrin Moms ). My friend Mark Pesce contemplates some of these themes on his blog and in particular in his Nexus post.

But Sheetal also raised another issue, that we might be developing a “population of individuals who are extremely connected and incredibly well-followed (predominantly in the Twitter third-person context) but suffer from fundamental inabilities to create and maintain physical relationships and oblivious (or in self-denial?) of the daily need to maintain and develop first/second person interactions as part of everyone’s physical daily existence”.

That is an interesting question.  It is also the complete opposite of my own experience with Twitter. Instead, through meeting people on Twitter and over time getting to know them in real life, I now have a much richer set of personal relationships.

At dinner the other night I was discussing just this issue with a bunch of people who had all met initially via Twitter but were now good friends in real life. We maintain those relationships – both on and offline – using time honoured techniques such as having conversations, sharing ideas and opinions, and getting together to share meals or attend events.

What I suspect is happening is that people without social skills in real life find it just as difficult to build and maintain relationships in other places too, including online.

Further, the network amplification effects of social network relationship matrices serve to amplify the knowledge of any social failures.  Thus, where once a social failure was constrained in time and place, it might now be recorded digitally forever. Also that social failure has the potential to go viral and become known more widely than ever before – such is the power of YouTube and its ilk.

8 thoughts on “Are social networks breeding social isolation?

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  2. your next-to-last para resonates with me, where you say: “people without social skills in real life find it just as difficult to build and maintain relationships in other places too, including online.”

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  5. Maddy Phelan

    I think an important consideration is the instant gratification element of social networking. For me, and perhaps for others, it creates a dependency that is ultimately unsustainable. We’re on our laptops and phones constantly hitting the button like rats connected to pleasure machines. It takes the focus off real life interactions, which are harder to organise and might be a bit dull at times, but because the pleasure builds over time it’s more sustaining for social persons. Basically, twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites are the high sugar, high fat junk food of human interaction, and real life social group interaction is the slow release, low gi complex carb meal. And on that note, it’s time to get off the internet.

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  6. Agree with your post. The more I’m hearing this on-going debate regarding the ‘risks and issues of Social Media’, the more I’m thinking it might just be an amplifier or magnifier of traits that ‘pre-exist’ in an individual’s personality – albeit in a latent form – before the use of on-line technology.
    Another way to consider this could be the analogy that moving to ‘Cyberspace’ is akin to a ‘physical migration… to Cyburbia’ (point developed by James Harkin in his book). So if we push the metaphor…: what is the difference, in principle, between the perceived addiction to be always “extremely connected” online, and the behaviour of a student moving to the 1st year of university who suddenly discovers life on the campus and wants to attend every single party happening around the place?
    The majority of the students probably exhibit such behaviours before settling down with close friends as years go by (which would be perceived as a balanced behaviour). To your point in the last paragraph: Some students keep displaying the other two extreme behaviours: Isolation from the rest of the crowd (equiv. to rejection of social networks), or fleeting from one group to the other, extremely insecure and fearful of ‘missing out’ if they don’t get invited to the ‘latest party in town’ (equiv. to the internet addict).
    Where the critics have got a point: if jumping online cuts people off what is happening in real life ‘in the room’… (as in, the classic joke of the couple who don’t talk to each other too busy texting their friends)… but that is probably a question of balance, good etiquette and polite manners… like not putting one’s feet on the table, not binging on the nuts or not systematically interrupting people talking…

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  7. I still remember getting the snail mail as a child and the anticipation while sorting to see if there might be anything FOR ME or answering the telephone with that same hope. It is no different today, but now I get communications much sooner and from an ever increasing group of people from all over the globe. There are still jokes about people living in the same house who never talk to each other, only write. Any loss of communications capacity is stressful to some degree. I am not worried about this subject much at all.

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