A few weeks ago my brothers and I discovered Voxer. We live hundreds of miles apart and don’t often get the chance to talk. We text and email, but rarely talk. Then along came Voxer, a smart phone app that turns our phones into a type of walkie-talkie. Voxer allows us to send each other quick voice messages and pictures with the click of a button. In a matter of days, the way we keep up has fundamentally shifted. We talk more and now easily maintain ongoing, daily conversations. We no longer have to wait until we are all free. I love technology that makes my life better.
When you think about the last hundred years, there have been an increasing number of these fundamental shifts. From the telephone and television to computers, email, social networking and smart phones, the way we live our lives is changing every day. Very few live exactly the way they did a year ago, let alone 10 years ago. And for the most part, most of us would agree that technology generally improves our lives.
But researchers are finding that there are some costs to certain technologies, that not all these improvements are truly improving all things. In a recent cover story in The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche writes:
The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved. When the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened its A&P stores, giving Americans self-service access to groceries, customers stopped having relationships with their grocers. When the telephone arrived, people stopped knocking on their neighbors’ doors. Social media bring this process to a much wider set of relationships.
Few would argue that that these innovations were steps backward, but they did come with real costs, especially to relationships. Marche suggests that Facebook, the social networking tool that is supposed to keep us connected, may actually be making us lonely. He writes, “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”
Marche highlights research from loneliness expert John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who studied the connection between loneliness and people’s involvement in Facebook, chat rooms, online games, dating sites and face-to-face contact:
The results were unequivocal. “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” he says. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.”
Cacioppo admitted this doesn’t mean we should all get off Facebook, but rather use Facebook and other social-networking tools to intentionally increase face-to-face contact. As he puts it, “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact, it increases social capital.” So instead of letting Facebook be the sole way we interact with others, we use it to plan face-to-face times.
We don’t want to let the extent of our relational interactions boil down to an exchange of texts, chats and Facebook posts. While many avoid using Facebook this way intuitively, research suggests there are many letting digital communication replace more and more of the face-time they spend with others. Instead of spending time with other people, they spend time posting pictures, commenting on status updates and chatting.
My brothers and I aren’t able to spend time together regularly, so it’s helpful for us to use tools like Voxer and Facebook as the next best way to connect. But many of us live close to our Facebook friends. In those relationships, we should use social media to create face-to-face interactions and not as a substitute for them. When technology draws us away from the ways people have historically built relationships, it’s wise to reconsider the tool that it is and use it as such, to create times spent face-to-face.