In the last few years, there’s rarely been an hour when I’ve not been connected to the internet. Outside the office, my smart phone pulls in my emails, I can tweet from the comfort of my sofa, and I can update my status on Facebook whilst I’m grabbing my groceries. If I’m out with my friends its not uncommon for us to collectively sit, hunched necked, around our smart phones as technology interferes with our social engagement. But in a culture accustomed to easy Internet access, a 24-hour news cycle and instant communication that isn’t really surprising.
Social networking also continues to change the business landscape. A decade ago the concept of ‘networking’ was very different. After all, Facebook was originally student-centric platform (until September 26, 2006 when it opened its doors to everyone with an email address) and it took Twitter until 2010 to reach 105 million users and for it to finally be considered mainstream. Before this attendance at trade shows, conferences, ladies lunches, and seminars was the way to make that first connection, break down the invisible social barrier and to shake that influential someone’s hand. But now the power of the internet and of social networking in particular has made it easier to converse with our target markets, to disseminate large chunks of information and to make an impact with consumers.
As PR professionals, we’re used to networking from the comfort of our office chairs, from our the train on the daily commute and even outside office hours, but now we’re just as likely to use Linkedin, Facebook or Twitter as we are to pick up the phone.
Social networking has become completely accepted in all aspects of our lives, so much so that at a family wedding a few weeks ago, I witnessed guests who were so keen to share their day with their absent friends that they were updating their statuses even before the cake had been cut.
New research suggests that on an average night with friends, each individual will spend 48 minutes using their smart phone responding to emails or replying to social network, and in affect completely ignoring the people we are meant to be socialising with… So in the effort to communicate more widely, are we reducing the amount of face-to-face interaction we have? Is our desire to share our experiences as they happen resulting in us insolating ourselves in the digital world?
Personally I don’t think so.
I have to admit I find it rather ironic that it has become accepted to spend your afternoon conversing with someone who might be hundreds of miles away rather than the person sitting next to you, but I also don’t think you have to shake someone’s hand to make an impression.
For me social media is all about relationships, and for that there is huge potential. Whether you simply tweet your existing friends and family, or whether you spend your time on social networks connecting professionally with bloggers and journalists, ultimately it all boils down to how deep those connections go.
Some sociologists argue that our online communications are transient, but I don’t believe that; there are rules and etiquette to be learnt online just as in face-to-face conversations.
Just because we’re increasingly chatting more through keyboards doesn’t make our communication any less interactive. The very definition of the word “social” highlights the importance of human connections.
Social media enables those connections to start and then allows them to develop outside a prescribed period of time. It extends our reach and allows us to connect and relate with others who are not in our immediate physical circles.
So whilst I’m a huge fan of that personal touch in communication, I certainly don’t intend to revert to snail mail – nor do I need to. The leap in communication technology has meant that information can now spread a lot quicker. Debates can now move from a small get together in the coffee-shop to a discussion amongst thousands on online forums. Fresh ideas can be explored, developed and enhanced by a wider collection of brains. That certainly doesn’t mean that you’re doing it by yourself.
The internet may be faceless, but that doesn’t mean that as an individual you have to be isolated within it. Social networking opens many doors, and still provides the opportunity to make a personal connection and develop that into a meaningful relationship – so why is it still labelled anti-social?