Emotion to Emoticon: anti-social media and the dying art of conversation

I’ve never been much of a technophile but there I am standing outside the café, smartphone in hand, waiting to meet a friend for a breakfast arranged by text in response to an email that was confirmed by way of a Facebook poke. If only I’d started up a Twitter feed to go with it I’d be getting two feeds at once –I think I’ll go for the two egg breakfast.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. Far too nice to be buried in an iPhone, checking emails, updating Facebook status or following the Twitter-ing of some pseudo-celebrities.

But I’m not. I already told you I am not a techie kind of guy. Granted I have four different emails, a Facebook, LinkedIn and a Twitter account but as my dozen or so real friends and 68 other virtual ‘friends’ can attest, I’m an indifferent social media user at best.

But there’s no shortage of regular users out there. The café behind me is full of them. Faces buried in a smartphone or laptop, nobody talking at all.

The street is no different. Collisions are narrowly avoided as people try to walk and engage with their phones. Two teenagers laugh as they ‘chat’ to each other on the phones in their hands rather than with the verbal skills they still (hopefully) have.

And I wonder, with all these supposed social outlets, whether we are actually becoming more anti-social.

University of Sydney psychologist, Professor Margaret Foddy, believes such claims are not so easy to determine. “The question seems sensible but you need to ask yourself what sorts of evidence would be relevant to answering it?  What are your comparison groups for ‘more’ and ‘less’ antisocial… and define what you mean by social media. Not all are the same.”

The June 2012 Sensis Social Media Report has 84 per cent of us accessing the internet everyday, 62 per cent of whom are using social media. On average we gained 10 new ‘friends’ on Facebook (by far the most popular at 97 per cent of all social media users) in the past year but saw less than half of our social media cohort face-to-face. But who do we even define as our friends? I have 80 ‘friends’ on Facebook but would see not even one-tenth of them in the flesh. Interestingly, in the report only 7 per cent of internet users not using social media didn’t because they preferred face-to-face contact.

American journalist and author Jeff Jarvis, in Australia during the Sydney Writers Festival in May promoting his new book Public Parts, says we need to embrace the very idea of “publicness” rather than focus on the negative aspects. “You’re comparing it [virtual relationships] to something in the analogue world and making that the standard. I have friends offline, of course, but I’ve made some incredible friendships online.”

A phone rings somewhere and my zen-like calm is broken; and just like that I’ve been reeled back in. It shames me, the speed at which I retrieve the iPhone from my pocket to check it, just in case.

You see, despite my indifference, it appears I have also succumbed to the very social media I have tried so hard to avoid all these years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the internet or social media at all. Sometimes I even think myself ‘savvy’. I can see the value in it. The world has been opened up to us; but at what cost? This breakfast I’m waiting on is something of an anomaly and even then it will no doubt be encroached upon by the digital world –in fact, it has already.

MIT society and technology expert Sherry Turkle, who spent 15 years researching all facets of our digital lives for her book Alone Together, says that mobile technology has made each of us ‘pauseable’.

“Our face-to-face conversations [are] routinely interrupted by incoming calls and text messages… turning away from those in front of you to answer a mobile phone or respond to a text has become close to the norm.”

And it’s true. How many of us are guilty of doing that exact thing or been with someone who has? Embarrassingly, my hand is up.

Real-life Emma is running late. A text that feels hastily compiled tells me “nt 2 lng x” and I resist the urge to send another unnecessary text back into the airwaves. Instead I stand calmly outside the café, stewing over the way texting is ruining spelling and grammar.

It seems I have many gripes today, but maybe that’s because I’m usually guilty of all the things I gripe about. I text people these days rather than call them for a chat. Texting is easier, virtually guilt free when cancelling plans and you avoid getting drawn into an all-too-boring conversation. I can’t even remember the last time I spoke to someone on a landline.

Naturally I see her long before she sees me, walking up the piazza, thumb working furiously as she walks and socialises (apparently). She looks up just in time to see me, smile and kiss me on the cheek, shaking the shiny BlackBerry in her hand as if the weight of it is positively exhausting. The phone goes into the handbag and actual conversation ensues. The usual pleasantries. How are things … that type of stuff.

We take a seat and immediately the BlackBerry is back –I leave my iPhone where it is; she checks hers… just in case.

A moment of silence hangs between us.

“My daughter just gifted me a chicken on FarmVille,” she relates with a smile.

“Don’t you have real chickens?” I ask.

“Yes,” she laughs, “but these aren’t nearly so much work.”

The waitress comes over with our menus. Lucky for me there are still some real chickens around so I can have my eggs.

“I already know what I want,” Em reveals and seeing my quizzical look adds, “I googled their menu.”


Who am I kidding? I’m not savvy at all.

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