Do Social Media Tools Make Us Less Social Where It Counts Most?


Iā€™m relatively active on the social web and I frequently encourage other marketing communications professionals to at least test drive some of these tools that allow us to interact with customers like never before. However, I was struck by an interesting irony this weekend regarding social media.

It happened Sunday night around 8:30. We had two friends over to watch the Super Bowl. I had my laptop out and was rating Super Bowl commercials in real time with other people on Twitter. After the 10th or 11th commercial, though, I realized that I was so interested in the social aspect of sharing an experience online with thousands of others that I was neglecting the people actually sitting beside me in the same room.

I set my laptop aside and spent the rest of the evening interested in the social aspect of sharing an experience offline with a few people right in front of me.

Do social media tools make us less social where it counts? What do you think?

*Image by Stuart Seeger.

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32 responses to “Do Social Media Tools Make Us Less Social Where It Counts Most?

  1. David, you’re absolutely right about social media sometimes make us anti-social. I’ve been to a number of events lately where people are so busy tweeting, text-messaging or checking out links on their phones that they aren’t interacting with people in the room.

    When my kids were little, I had a video camera and decided to start recording all the neat things they were doing. After a while, I realized I was so intent on getting the best angle or a clear shot that I wasn’t actually experiencing those amazing moments, just recording them to watch again later. So, I started putting the camera down and enjoying the moment instead of recording the memory.

    I think a lot of folks caught up in social media should start doing the same thing and focusing on the moment they are in rather than one they are connected to via a machine.

  2. Here,here! An acronym we neglect all too much: F2F .

  3. Yes I think that social media sometimes cut us off from the world. It irritates even more when you undergo this experience. You are talking to someone who is tweeting instead of listening you or worst, checking his blackberry every 5 minutes. I can say that since I noticed that it hurts me, I’m more careful when I’m with other people (’cause I do check my phone all the time too… )

  4. I’m so glad you caught yourself! I’ve always thought it extremely rude to talk on the phone when visiting with others, and texting and “SMing” isn’t any different.

    I can see how easy it is to get sucked up in it while with family, friends, etc., but I make it a point to put the computer or gadget away when spending time with people I love or enjoy being with.

    Some people might look up from their machine one day to find no one around them.

  5. I think it certainly can if we let it. I spend a LOT of time on the computer both at home and at work and I interact even with people I’m in the same city with more often on the computer than in person.

    The same thing almost happened to me at the Superbowl. We had a party at our house and I did check Twitter pretty frequently. If we hadn’t had company I would have probably been on it the whole time.

    Every tool has the opportunity to be misused and it strikes me that the misuse is often the opposite of the intended use. Hammers tearing down instead of building up for one example.

  6. David, thanks for the reminder and I really like the comments so far especially,

    “An acronym we neglect all too much: F2F .” and “Some people might look up from their machine one day to find no one around them.”

    Like many things that have the potential for addiction, it is wise to self-evaluate use and consider moderation as the best personal policy. I know that I have been guilty at times of ignoring loved-ones since getting so caught up in the social web and have felt very remorseful for causing even the slightest bit of pain. That is an unfortunate by-product of the excitement of using all of the latest and greatest SM tools.

    I agree with you, David, that professionals should at least “test drive” SM tools to see what works, but then once you get the hang of it, set boundaries and limitations to know when to say when. Thanks again.

  7. I had a post, few months ago, that was going in this direction of getting offline frequently not to get lost behind the screen.
    Life has to be a well balanced mix of on and offline.

  8. Great question, and illustration, David.

    Yes, I think we can easily abuse social media and ignore those live people right around us. The best example I’ve heard lately is a colleague who attended a live, in-person, all-in-a-room-together conference where no one in the audience could verbally ask a question. They had to twitter their comments to the presenter standing a few feet in front of them. My colleague’s comment was priceless: “I’ll email you a handshake.”

  9. I was also tweeting about ads during the game… Turned that into part of the f2f experience. Asked our guests for their reaction, tweeted our group’s thoughts, and didn’t worry about catching every ad. It was a fun experience.

    That said, I do have a no devices during client meetings or family dinners.

  10. Thanks for sharing this story, David.

    I made the tough choice to leave my laptop home when I headed out to a SuperBowl party. I hated the thought of missing the great Twitter discussion about advertising, but being an anti-social buffoon at a party would have been far more damaging.

    We have to unplug for a while now and again. If you can only relate to other Internet junkies, you’re not really social adept anyway, are you?

  11. Thanks for all the great comments and feedback! Great observations here by all.

  12. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    I’d say that social media give us a tool that we can potentially use to neglect face to face interaction. However, social media sites are not built in such a way that users are punished if they leave the sites to go have F2F time. Maybe I’m just nitpicking semantics? It almost sounds like you’re really asking “Is inappropriate use of social media inappropriate?”

  13. Well put. I think the explosion of social media is a reflection of people’s real craving for connection and community, but as you noted, it often has a negative effect on F2F interaction. Despite all the activity, most people still don’t know their neighbors.

    We recently launched, a service that is building community through commerce – helping people buy and sell with friends and neighbors while supporting local non-profits. We’re providing an alternative to “free and anonymous” that leverages people’s commercial needs to connect them to the communities they live in and the organizations they care about.

  14. @Dave – great quote re: guns. To clarify, I’m not blaming social media no more than I would blame a hip-hop star for a murder committed by a fan.

    We need to find a balance, recognize when we’re getting giddy over shiny object syndrome and regulate ourselves.

    Sunday night wasn’t Twitter’s fault. What struck me was the irony of how I was using social tools to be anti-social where it mattered most at that moment.

  15. David, provocative post as always. This point is why my wife (who also works in a high stress, always connected tech marketing job) and I take “no laptop” weekends as much as possible. The next challenge for me is putting down the iPhone while on those weekends, as it’s become far more of a dependency than the laptop ever was. It’s an overly addictive lifeline to the online world.

    I think part of this is driven by an increasing culture around social media where people feel disconnected or less relevant within their broader online peer groups if they miss something big – like those “Hey Tweeps, what did I miss?!?” tweets I see all the time. We all get so focused on tracking and commenting on whatever the latest buzz is (erm, like I’m doing now…), we sometimes forget to look up and just interact with those around us.

    One place you see this in spades on a professional level is at conferences – so many people are busy live tweeting, live blogging, podcasting, chatting on backchannels, etc that you sometimes wonder why they spent so much time and $$ to attend in person at all.

  16. Quote from my fiance as I showed her Twitter chatter about SB ads while we partied with some friends:

    “Don’t these people have anyone around them to talk to?”

    As a Twitter newbie, I do get the impression people tend to go overboard with the updates. But it IS interesting to hear people’s thoughts in your industry (PR, communications, media, etc), especially on topics that affect us, like advertising.

    A good rule of thumb: if you’ve got guests over, turn off the computer and put down the iPhone. If you’re debating b/w taking up an invite to interact with real people or sit home and Tweet — go with the real people. At least they can buy you real beer (if Chris Brogan or Michael Calienes are listneing, exception noted:
    Russ (@rzaruss)

  17. Very interesting post, I actually had a similar experience during the Super Bowl on Sunday. The growth behind social media is fascinating, but people should try to limit their use of it, this will leave more interesting information in a less flooded atmosphere.

  18. It amazes how much my generation is so different than say, my parent’s generation. I’ve grown up with technology constantly in my hands and yet my parents always want to rip that technology away from me whenever we have dinner, get together’s or are just simply hanging out together at home.

    I think this is the one downfall in the social media aspect of the world today. I am a child of technology, but yet I’ve realized that my parents were always right- you can never get that full person-to-person connection over a computer or a phone. It’s never the same.

    I feel as if some people take technology and its power to an extreme and each individual must figure out what is the best balance for them.

  19. I think it’s just you, David. The amount of times I’ve initiated a conversation with you online, only to be met with stony silence… Oh, hang on, everyone does that to me – it’s me then šŸ˜‰

    In seriousness, I think we’re all probably pretty guilty of ignoring those around us. I wrote a little piece a couple of weeks back about thanking our parents for who we are, and the same can go for any of our friends, family and even colleagues.

    Sure, our online communities are awesome people by and large and life wouldn’t be the same without them. But there’s only so much love a virtual hug can give. šŸ™‚

  20. Rather than questioning whether social media tools cause less socialization, ask yourself how the power of socializing face-to-face affects you when using the tool subsequently.

    What do I mean? I had planned to live-tweet during the Super Bowl, participating in the rating and reviewing of commercials. But in an impromptu decision, I found myself at someone else’s home and felt it rude under the circumstances to use my BlackBerry so kept it in my jacket pocket and never took it out. I also watched less of the commercials.

    But later, when I re-entered the social media spaces I had planned to participate, I felt left out. As if “real life” took over “computer life” and I felt weird.

    Know what I mean?

  21. You mind reader, you – had this same thought the other day.

    What I find ironic is how we’re quick to say how social media helps us communicate better but it’s taking away from the face to face personable contact that we’ve always had. Our personal interactions are now limited because of how engulfed we are within the social sphere.

    A bit counter-intuitive, eh? Your thoughts show us that we need to realize a balance between the two and be comfortable to do so. At the least, for the sake of our IRL relationships.

  22. Engaging in social media is such a (physically) solitary act. Like your recent experience, I often find myself disconnected from “reality” when I get consumed with my online activities.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David.

  23. Exact same experience. And like you, I put down the Bberry early on in the proceedings. I think this teaches us one thing–we’re online entirely too much! šŸ™‚

    In all seriousness, this sounds eerily similar to those work/life boundaries you have to make sure you set. Without clear boundaries, we lose sight of what’s truly important (relationships, loved ones, family, friends).

  24. I’m not sure that any of us has a good answer or solution for this dilemma, but let me take my best stab at it…

    I feel that I’m not the only one of us that shook our heads at the thought of jumping on MySpace, Facebook or Twitter – passing them all off as “impersonal” and the next generation’s way of communicating. This was typically followed by “why can’t these kids just call each other or meet face-to-face?!”

    I’m happy to say that today…I get it. The reality is social media, email, phone, face-to-face, etc. are all ways that we communicate with others. My personal take is their must be a healthy mix of each in the toolbox of a successful communicator (regardless of industry). Personally, I schedule 2-3 times per day where I read, write or post on others blogs & engage in Twitter conversations. Sure there are times when I’m doing both at much greater daily frequencies, but the reality is social media is sprinkled into my daily communications schedule.

    At the end of the day, I don’t think we should weight any form of communications more than others…or you may miss out OR fall behind:)

    Great discussion & I enjoy being a part of it!

  25. Two words: eye contact.

    Not just at home, but at work. Have you had the experience of stopping by someone’s office to chat and the other party carries on the conversation without raising their eyes from the monitor? Makes me feel irrelevant, unappreciated and disengaged. I make a point now to close my laptop when talking face-to-face with someone.

  26. Thanks for the reminder. Whenever I talk to clients about SM’s various tools, I always caution them about the amount of time and effort involved. Then we have the “does it fit in with my goals and objectives” convo. The truth is that you can really lose yourself – and thus sight of your goals – in SM at the expense of F2F time that might provide a better yield.

  27. What you describe here is, indeed, something we all need to be conscious of…that is, “there’s a time to tweet, and a time to talk.”
    I recently explored this issue in a blog post asking “has the ping replaced the ring?” with so many people opting for online communication over “old school” communications (like the telephone). LOL.
    I try to make it a general rule not to answer my cell phone (or I at least excuse myself and step out of the room with it) whenever I’m with other people. I have the iPod Touch, so my mobile twittering is limited to wherever there is free/open wireless access. And while this has frustrated me (limiting me) from time to time, I think it might be a good thing for me, providing structure and limits when I might otherwise be tempted (as I am a twitter addict, er, enthusiast) to tweet at times when I should be looking up from my touchscreen.

    (Please, no one tell me how much I’m missing out on without unbridled mobile tweeting capabilities…I know, it pains me, but I refuse to buy an iPhone until they open up carrier selection beyond AT&T.)

    Anyway. I attended a local networking function called Ignite Baltimore #2 ( last week and people were live-tweeting it as they met (for the first time) other ppl they knew from twitter. I couldn’t help but notice how funny it was to see everyone together with so many mobile devices in hand, fingertips blazing. But, yet, in that venue, the F2F and F2M (Face2Mobile) overlap felt natural, socially acceptable and I think it generally enhanced the broader reach of the event. I fully expect to see even more people at Ignite Baltimore #3 because of the real-time excitement generated via twitter.

    Enjoyed the post. Look forward to reading more on this topic.

  28. Great post. I fought the urge to be social webby during the Super Bowl, too. I suppose it’s nice to know that Twitter is always there during a big event, just in case the people around you aren’t especially clever or interesting. (Joking here, maybe?)
    All of the professional people I know with families struggle to find the right balance, and generally carry a significant amount of guilt about never spending enough time with their kids and spouse. I think time on the social web needs to be measured. So, if you’ve already got a World of Warcraft habit or are playing on several sports teams, etc., it’s probably best to drop off the grid at home.
    I agree with others that you should dig into this idea a little more. Go ahead, buy yourself a Mr.Pibb for this one. You deserve it!

  29. Great post! Thank you.

    It’s always very frustrating when you spend time with a friend or family member and they are on their phone checking all their social media sites, text messaging etc. I think we’ve all forgotten how rude it is to do that. I’m glad this has been pointed out and hope we will all think about that the next time we are guilty of this.

    It’s all about the moment, stop and enjoy it!

  30. Great post, David.

    I have noticed more and more the acceptance of taking “live” mobile devices into meetings, not only with colleagues, but with clients and being completely and utterly disengaged from a critical, business-building moment, only to be focused on something else that is probably out of their control at that moment anyway.

    The old catch phrase “a bird in the hand” applies here. Same with personal relationships as you mentioned. It is so easy to especially be caught up when it is your immediate family, whose valuable time we take for granted any way.

    Thanks for invoking the thought . . . for personal and professional reasons.

  31. My husband instituted a Twitter ban during the SuperBowl when we had some friends over, and I ended up enjoying the game and commercials a lot more.

    The same thing happened this weekend with the Grammys. I was on a ski trip with nine friends and we turned on the TV to check snow reports and ended up watching Grammys. We all sat there offering up our own commentary (The hip-hop summit? Seriously?) and it turned into a hilarious MST3K version of the Grammys. I could have probably read/heard some similar reactions from myTwitter friends, but I would’ve done it at the expense of my good pals sitting right next to me that I’d flown across the country to spend time with.

  32. What a great post. I recently got a facebook “hangover” from an excess of superficial comments and a dearth of meaningful interaction. Ugh. How to use it to it’s advantages without letting it become invasion of the body snatchers?

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