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If you're not a digital native, you've gotta be a digital immigrant.

I do social media for a living. It's my passion, and in many ways, this is a dream job. I am working hard to bring a truly robust social culture to a company with great values. Good vibes all around, right?

I wish it were so simple.

Articles like the one linked below are alarmist. What's worse is that they're being published by highly reputable sources (at least, many of my Gen-X and Boomer superiors think so). "Did you read this Forbes article? Did you know social media is ruining communication?"

Sigh. Facepalm.

The mainstream media is always going to find a way to freak us out. That strategy once sold more papers and now it gets more pageviews. Ultimately, it's all about advertisements. Truly great journalism ignores the bottom line and pushes ideas that push us forward as people. So where are the mainstream articles about the power of social? Where are the visionaries? Some get it. +Craig Kanalley, +Jason Salas, +Brent Rose, and +Dan McDermott are great examples. But they're a minority. Why? I'd argue it's because they know what it means to live in a digital world -- the ones who aren't digital natives are immigrants, and they're happy to have found this new land of unique opportunity.

Maybe I've got it all wrong and maybe the rise of the :-) is a sign of our impending cultural doom. But I suspect this is no different than any other mass cultural change in our shared history: some people don't like it simply because it is different. They don't want to learn a new way of doing things. But the digital landscape is changing the world in ways we can't hide from. If you can't accept that Gen Y wants to interact with brands on Twitter who engage them, or if you can't accept that people expect a wealth of information to be available at their fingertips, you are not going to be part of the majority (real or perceived) for long.

Are you a digital native or a digital immigrant?
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29 comments
 
Thanks, Christina. Glad to be on the right side of history. (I hope.)
 
+Ronald Stepp - Beats me. I mean, there is a .com at the end of forbes, now! That said, I think they might actually know their audience so well that they know they can pander to the folks who haven't quite embraced the digital world but are savvy enough to log onto a "trusted" news source's website.
 
I used to think social media was destroying communication, but it turns out I was just using wrong!
 
+Christina Trapolino - One thing is I wasn't taking advantage of are the powerful tools for collaborative events planning, making things happen offline. Similarly, before social media I think we forget how much more difficult it was to keep in touch with someone! Emails were hit and miss, because many people don't check it that often. Phone calls? What are the odds that someone isn't busy at the moment?

I believe it was much more difficult to maintain social spheres before social media. Most of my friends from high school or my home town, many of whom moved out of state, were very difficult to keep up with. Nowadays that isn't a problem. Social media has made the world much smaller, and that is very much a good thing. What were the odds of meeting someone with similar interests from another country in the pre Web 2.0 world?
 
Great points, +David Santy. I grew up online, so I admittedly take for granted the concepts that my elders have struggled with -- like that digital communication is not necessarily superficial just because of the method used. I've had deep relationships with people I've never met, I've developed relationships with friends and family who haven't seen me in years...all through text. Would it be a more robust relationship if we picked up the phone? Maybe. Would it be more robust than a phone-only relationship? Probably not.

The most disturbing thing about the Forbes article I linked to is its attempt to say a girl's suicide could have been prevented if her mother had been communicating with her face to face instead of via texts and emails/Facebook. Depressed people hide their depression in a lot of ways, sometimes even in person. The idea that we're removing tone of voice and facial expressions from communications sounds bad, but I think it's not that simple for those of us who are truly digital natives -- we grew up communicating via text, so we're actually pretty good at both interpreting and conveying messages. Could we be better speakers? Probably, on the whole, but let's all try to remember that not everyone is great at communicating on any channel. The folks who tweet their breakfast and can't spell would be saying something idiotic anyway...at least that's how I see it.
 
A big reason that many have moved away from body language is because of how unrelaible a way it is to communicate. There are constant misinterpretations between introverts and extroverts for example. There is also a great deal of difference between cultures. This does not even take into account workers who may have disabilities such as autism and nonverbal learning disability, where body langauge is not often understood.

In some ways she is a prime example of the problem, not the solution. The overreliance on body language lead to a great degree of discriminatory behavior because it is primarily instinctive and often leads to confusion. Some people do use it too heavily to communicate, and this puts people who may not use it in the same way at a disadvantage. Verbal and written communication on the other hand levels the playing field, and in some ways that may be something digital natives grasp. The older generations who relied to heavily on non-verbals however may be struggling with this aspect though because they are relying more on their instinctive communication. Essentially this is social evolution at play.

For the record, I struggle with nonverbals myself. I see them as unreliable outside of basic safety.
 
Excellent points, +Christine Paluch. I think it's safe to say that communication is changing, but when we start trying to assign "good" or "bad" to that change, we run into a lot of terrible logic. There is probably something to the idea that ideal communication uses all available channels, but I wonder if this doesn't bring up the "jack of all trades is a master of none" issue. Good food for thought in any case.
 
+Christina Trapolino Social Media is not sabotaging Real Communication. However, it could easily be argued that people who use social media wrong without guidance certainly cause some chaos and add noise to our information streams.

We live in a digital age, where knowledge and information is literally at our fingertips! I know plenty of people who are tech savvy, and have no minimal people skills. And there are probably just as many social butterflies who don't own smart phones and rarely go online. That certainly leaves a lot of middle ground...

Because I work in an online retail environment, I am constantly connected to the Web, and sometimes take it for granted that communication is only a couple of keystrokes away. However, I am often surprised when I meet people IRL who say they check their email once a week or less.

Like everything else in life, balance and moderation are needed to optimize relationships. I don't think Social Media and IRL interactions are mutually exclusive. Over the past several months here on G+, there are plenty of people with whom I've become friends, that I might never have met in real life if not for the first introductions online. If there is a disconnect, it is perhaps in people who don't fully utilize the tools available with which social media can enhance personal relationships. Anyway, just my two cents... 8¬)
 
Very timely. I am working on an essay on loneliness and social media right now, and at this point am leaning towards a conclusion that social media does not, on the whole, cause more loneliness. Doesn't make such a provocative headline, though, does it? :)
 
Hmm. This is a pretty silly article, but I think a lot of points are being missed all around. My background: digital native, I guess: I have been online pretty much continuously since 1984 or 1987 depending on some definitions (used email only at first, then got on the Internet itself later). But here's the thing: I am also deaf, meaning I actually do rely quite a bit on body language (and I'm not talking about ASL either). Trust me, body language does not make communication easier; or else us deaf people would be at the top of this particular heap. It does convey a fair amount of info, but that info is NOT communication, which seems to be a mistake many hearing people make. But that maligned emoticon performs the same function. There's any number of online conventions -- even ones that are particular to different places online -- the difference between :-) and lol is very much like the difference between hello and howdy.

Anyway, yeah.
Ben Li
 
The article's main claim is that since most interpersonal communication does not occur via the literal explicit content of the message, our increasing adoption of textual communication methods reduces the quality of communication for some people. The premise is supported by decades of research and fields like graphic design. The conclusion is supported by examples of communication failures that occur via digital textual media.

There's no need for the social media elite to demean the late adopters or non-adopters just because such elite are less effective at communicating with people unlike themselves.

Yet, you state as a problem or perhaps as a claim of higher position: "you [social media non-adopters] are not going to be part of the majority (real or perceived) for long". For whom is this the larger problem? The marketers who must once again communicate with individuals, or the individuals whose identities remain distinct from the rest?

You assert that "The mainstream media is always going to find a way to freak us out." I would argue that your comments demonstrate that "social media" does exactly the same. This is exemplified by your almost hyperbolic generalization of non-social media users as individuals lacking sufficient reading or cognitive skills to comprehend the accompanying article's conclusion on the second page below the digital fold: "As leaders and global citizens, we must find a way to take advantage of all the amazing benefits of our technologically-enabled world while ensuring that we aren’t losing touch with the most important relationships, personal and professional." (emphasis mine).
One could ask why you hold your own readers in such contempt that you would want us to misconstrue the above conclusion, with your own that mainstream media does not get it. The only one in this conversation arguing that "social media is ruining communication" is you, Ms. Trapolino.
 
+Ben Li - What do you think about the Forbes writer's assertion that social media played a role in the young girl's suicide attempt? So far as I see it, that's a case of pure fear mongering.

The "social media elite" are ineffective communicators in face to face meetings? Do you agree with the article on that point?
 
Thank you +Christina Trapolino!! Great post, love your analysis, especially about page views today being similar to selling papers in the old days - right on. Definitely a digital native here, btw :) but immigrants are most welcome!
Ben Li
 
+David Santy I don't interpret the Forbes statement as a causal attribution.

"...daughter answering with positive statements ... she’d been holed up in her dorm room, crying and showing signs of depression — a completely different reality from the one that she conveyed in texts, Facebook posts and tweets.".

I read that as the daughter was depressed, but that information was not available to the mother via text, whereas the mother might have noticed different cues, say, via a phone call, Skype, or penmanship in a handwritten letter.

"Social media elite" is my phrase, and not from the article. I would expand and clarify my original point to state that members tend to be more effective at communicating with their in-groups than with others (for many well understood sociological reasons). In this case, there is the added difficulty of using a highly technical medium.

The artificial categorizations of 'social media communicator' and 'face to face communicator' would share in common the general skill of communication, but there would be no conceptual reason to initially assume that the 'social media' skill would be linked to the 'face to face' skill in any other way. It would be reasonable to expect that great communicators in general to easily become at least adept at communicating with several media. It would be less reasonable to expect an expert user of the Twitter medium to also be an adept user of the Gravity medium, or the face to face medium, or to be even an adept communicator in general. History is replete with examples of great writers and orators who lacked the other skill.
 
The article seems to miss the point that the daughter was away in college, so the opportunity for face to face communication with her mother was not available. Texting, in this case, didn't supplant personal exchanges, it provided opportunities where they previously didn't exist. In the absence of texting, the daughter would likely have still suffered with depression to the same grim conclusion, but also wouldn't have had that additional lifeline that could have saved her.

I considered myself a digital native, by the way, but having seen my nieces, both under five, use of technology - both in terms of their ability and their expectations - I realise that I am an immigrant to the digital world. The truly indigenous are those born after 2000.
Ben Li
 
+Dave Tansley "Texting, in this case, didn't supplant personal exchanges, it provided opportunities where they previously didn't exist."

That seems unlikely. What devices could they use to communicate via SMS that could not also be used to place a voice or video call? If their default mode of regular communication was texting and not other means, then texting did operationally supplant other personal exchanges through which the mother could have gained other clues about her daughter's condition.
 
+Ben Li You may be right, there's very little extra information given. But I tend to think that given all of the richer forms of communication available to the daughter to reach out for help, the fact that she didn't use them is more indicative of the daughter's state of mind than the deficiencies of text messaging as a medium.

The one piece of information the article does give is that the daughter was actively covering up her situation. In the absence of texting, this wouldn't have gone away, she just wouldn't have communicated at all (possibly).

People often forget what it was like in the days before ubiquitous communication. I have a friend who is constantly moaning that her son has become antisocial since he spends his evenings talking to his friends on Facebook. She says this with no sense of irony or self-awareness at all.

I don't know about you, but when I was young we watched TV off an evening. This was not a halcyon age of grand discourse! :)

It's difficult to convey to people that communication isn't just black or white. There are now many different shades of grey in between.
Ben Li
 
+Dave Tansley You're right. This article lacks some important details, and I'm also not convinced that it fear mongers about social media as the original poster would like us to believe.

In the absence of (presumably regular) texting, the daughter could have benefitted from a health and welfare checkup by the local police. Before these newfangled personal telegraphs were reinvented, again, I remember that we would schedule time to watch TV together, to place and receive calls from geographically distant relatives, and to be at certain places at certain times to meet other people. Perhaps we've forgotten how to plan ahead (and hence have less slack for error) now that both real-time and asynchronous communication are pervasive.
 
Good morning! I had to go out after posting this, but now that I've slept I can see the conversation has continued on in a direction I hadn't anticipated. Gotta love social media. *wink*

+Craig Kanalley - Thanks for the kind words, but I especially appreciate the last thing you said in your comment. Digital immigrants are definitely welcome, and I think that's an important sentiment for +Ben Li to understand. We don't hate anyone who doesn't join the club, so to speak. We just don't think it's fair for them to characterize us as less capable communicators just because we use a medium that hasn't been universally adopted by previous generations yet (although it's looking like that may be inevitable, given enough time).

Ben, I'm very sorry if you interpreted my post as an attack on "non-social media users." That wasn't my point, and it couldn't be further from how I actually feel, but it goes to show that we can all offend someone without intending to when we don't carefully watch our wording.

I was bothered a lot by the implications of the Forbes article -- and frankly, the fact that the author acknowledges that we should embrace technology on the second page of an article whose entire premise until that sentence seems to be that social media ruins communication felt a little disingenuous to me. I probably should have acknowledged that in the original post -- perhaps it would have clarified things somewhat.

I would humbly recommend that you take a look at the comments +Christina Kelly added to this article when she reposted it on her own Stream. The suicide issue was particularly upsetting for both of us (and I suspect others), and perhaps that made it difficult for us to see the last few paragraphs of the Forbes article as sincere (or even relevant to the rest of the piece).
 
I found this post really interesting. The article that is linked doesn't really convey any real evidence that social media engenders disconnect in my opinion. I've met a person on the brink of suicide who could light up the room with smiles and giggles if a kid walked in. Not very authentic or revealing though it's face to face. It's not that there isn't merit in "authentic communication" and those types of conversations that take place face-to-face... but I will tell you that as an introvert, I have more conversations through social media than I would anywhere else. As for body language clues, I defy anybody to tell me what my mood is by my body language. If I want to show happiness (though I am depressed) I can. And visa versa.
It's a new world and we change with it or we become stagnant.
 
+martin shervington made an excellent point that complements yours, +Christina Lihani, on his own re-share of this post. He brought up the fact that digital communication is no longer restricted to text, anyway -- now we have video & voice that's just as easy to access. :)
Sean M
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Given that I am netizen and grew up very heavily as such, it is hard for me to personally contrast the changes. But, here are some of my thoughts...

Girl's Suicide
I agree with you that Forbes' insinuation is weak; that face-to-face - old school - communication would have prevented this girl's suicide. Distance relationships are just plain difficult to maintain - regardless of the means of communication. And, if face to face encounters were so effective, then why are there still so many suicides occurring at the high school level (where the parents should have had ample opportunity to intercede)? Social media has definitely shifted communication to the written word, but social media (thanks in part to broadband) is also bringing back the visual and audible communication (http://mashable.com/2012/05/03/teens-video-chat/).

Body Language
First, I would argue that body language used to be much more powerful, and can still be so in intimate relationships. When people interacted in-person frequently and in smaller communities, an individual's idiosyncrasies would have become more easily known and usable for interpersonal communication. So, to me, while social media has definitely impacted the frequency and desirability of in-person meetings, that body language was already on a decline due to increasingly mixed communities as the world "shrank"; social media is just the big, new kid on the block that is taking the blame.
 
+Elle Gray Why? Wouldn't it have helped transcend the immediate surroundings, put things in perspective, foster learning and enable the connection with like-minded people around the globe?
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