I have always considered myself to be a social person – I think. Okay, perhaps social media, texting, and cell phone obsession have consumed my generation, but that only really took off in my early teens, so I clearly learned social skills prior to this evolution. Right?
The debate of social interaction and the upcoming generation’s ability to be active and comfortable to person-to-person interaction has been prominent in academia, to the point that personally I’ve never found it particularly fascinating. The other day, however, I had a business networking meeting. As per usual protocol, I immediately stood up and shook their hand. After being led into an office and casually discussing career goals and the typical sum of a professional background, the person commented that I presented well. I was obviously glad to have a complement, and they followed by pointing out they could immediately tell I had strong interpersonal skills by my handshake. Sorry? I had no idea that my fate of a good impression had already been sealed in the first thirty seconds. They proceeded to show me what they often received – a flimsy, limp noodle handshake that inconspicuously read ‘I couldn’t care less’. It led me to wonder if this really was the truth of my generation. Are we so consumed by our digital lives that we’ve lost the instinct and knowledge of body language?
In the Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs, Curry (2002) suggests that the key to understanding shifts in social interaction is to consider the interconnection between technologies available for communication and representation and the method by which people conceptualize space and place (p.503). Slater (2002) furthers this notion by describing the advancements of new media from older forms of digital interaction. He states:
“…the focus moved from the virtual as simulation to the virtual of coherent social space, and one in which new rules and ways of being and relating could emerge precisely because of the separation from the constraints of the ‘really real’. We can flesh this out through the remaining three terms: spatiality, disembedding and disembodiment.”(p.534)
When we take into consideration our interpretation of space and place, how do we then define our virtual selves? Do we feel a sense of place and space through our Facebook page? Is Facebook Messenger a so-called ‘place’ and ‘space’ of interaction in the same sense a coffee shop or that office I was in might be? In a sense, we could push this statement to say that our computers or more specifically the Internet holds a plethora of spaces and places. These ‘realities’ however are constructed through a series of programming mechanisms. In a simple scenario, consider what happens when you restore your backed up hard drive onto your computer; everything is restored to how it was one month ago, for example. Now, obviously this functions differently on the uber-intelligent Internet, but imagine this also applied to all of your social media accounts. How does this coordinate with your actual reality? Does it create a type of friction or conflict? In essence, it creates two separate realities of space and place. The difference though is in that the Internet and new media does not function in the linear manner through which real life unfolds.
This line of thought is just a minute part in the ambiguous debate of the effects of new media. Questions of identity, policy, freedoms of expression, etc. are all factors in the forming of digital social interaction. In many ways, pockets of society are reverting back to classic and humanized forms of interaction. The movement towards the tangible object for example, has reinvigorated the value of the object versus the digital copy. I would argue this phenomenon gives hope to the classic industries of publishing, music, and art. There is however an undeniable shift away from this and a growing obsession of the virtual.
Going back to the example of my business meeting, it became clear that the ability to socially interact face-to-face has now become a valuable asset. Whether this quality will diminish and eventually become extinct with new generations remains to be seen.
Lievrouw, L. and Livingstone, S. (Eds.)(2002). The Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and the Consequences of ICTs. London: Sage Publications.