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Could social media be making us Less Social?

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By James Peterson

Posted  Wednesday, January 8   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

You rise up early every single day and the first thing you think of is rushing to your social media accounts to follow a trending item until late in the night, avoiding interactions with the people around you. You could be becoming anti-social without realising it.

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Uganda has finally caught on with the social media revolution. There is even the Social Media Awards to honour the best in social media but is social media making us less social? We are being flooded by news and information from an ever-increasing number of social media channels more and more each day. Increasingly, news is coming to us via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and LinkedIn especially. Our cognitive powers in making sense of it, finding the signal within the noise, have never been more challenged.

Some people talk about information anywhere, anytime, but in fact, isn’t it more a case of information everywhere all the time? You can’t get away from it.
I recently read an article in The Sun, a UK tabloid, which queries: “Are you an “Infomaniac”?

According to the article, 34 per cent check their smartphone after sex, 23 per cent go on Twitter more than 10 times a day, 51 per cent check social network sites at dinner, 62 per cent use their phones while shopping and 42 per cent will stop a conversation if their phone beeps.
One person was even quoted as saying: “Sometimes I wake up in the night and reach for my phone so I can do a Tweet”.
And another: “I take pictures of my food, my feet….pretty much anything and post it online”.

Yes, I think I’m following a few people like that, which reminds me I must do a bit of ‘weeding’ on my Twitter account!
Some other useful statistics that seem to reinforce this sense of “information pervasiveness”:
•The average Briton now has 26 Internet accounts for everything from email and bank services to online shopping, social media sites, Skype and Paypal.
•The average worker checks his email inbox 36 times every hour.
•One in three smartphone owners would rather give up sex than their mobile phone (Pew Research).
•90 per cent of 18 – 29-year-olds say they will sleep with their phone in or beside their bed (Pew Research).
•One in 10 say they are woken at least a few times per week by calls, texts or emails (Pew Research).

This all seems to reinforce the growing phenomenon of what they call FOMO, pronounced as FO-MO, which means fear of missing out. These people want or need to be connected to their email and social media channels all day (and night). And apparently there is another new phobia you can add to the list of human paranoia - Nomophobia. Nomophobia is the fear of losing your mobile phone. But whilst we complain about information overload and having no time to do the quality things in life, we are at the same time adding to the volume. Everyone has a voice and everyone wants to be heard. Which reminds me of the quote by Clay Shirky who said, “Publishing isn’t a job any more, it’s a button”.

And if it is so easy to publish in today’s world, it’s even easier to share – just one click of a button and it is shared with all of your Facebook/Twitter/Google+ followers. And your network of friends and followers will in turn share with their networks. Tweets beget more tweets, which might stimulate new comments and new tweets. And so it goes on. No wonder we are drowning in information, and social media has made it all so easy. But are we losing something in this morass of news and information, made possible by simple one-click interfaces and frictionless sharing?

I only recently realised through a conversation with a friend that his relationship with his now ex-girlfriend, was predicated on a whole new protocol of ‘Unfriending’ on Facebook. You no longer have to have a face-to-face discussion to end a relationship; it can all be done with a click of a button!
Perhaps this one-button-does-everything mentality that we are now so used to is making us less social and more insensitive to the feelings of others? We have a paradox where social media is reinforcing anti-social behaviour.

It will be interesting to see what 2014 brings in terms of new and shiny social media tools and social networks, but it does not take a philosopher to predict that the cycle of news and information propagation is going to get faster, more people are going to get connected to the Internet, more people will have a voice, and finding that signal amongst all of the noise is going to get that much harder.
Maybe we should think about what we are losing – the social skills that help us establish trust and understanding with our fellow human beings, and rediscovering those quality conversations. A New Year’s resolution maybe?

jpeterson@ug.nationmedia.com