Social Media Isn’t Very Sociable After All


November 14, 2017

by Michelle Smith

I offer a cautionary tale here for every generation about our over-reliance on technology when being ‘social….’

While a technology fan and an active social media user, I contend that e-friends aren’t the same as real life friends, and no matter how awesome the technology, communication tools can’t begin to replace being sociable and actually interacting with others.

We learn a great deal with and from technology, but there’s no smart phone smart enough to teach us how to build our ‘street cred,’ get picked for Dodge Ball, jockey for status within our group, be a good friend or colleague, make conversation with the opposite sex, handle disappointment and loss, or identify the whiners, quitters and excuse-givers. Building personal relationships teaches us valuable skills technology simply cannot.

To have a rich and full life, we need to master – and balance – both technological communications and live social interactions.

Relationships – especially business relationships – have real tangible value. The FORUM at Northwestern University did extensive research on leadership and found business relationships can actually double performance results in the workplace.  Since then, the FORUM has been advocating for broader professional appreciation for the ‘Human Value Connections’ that help our work flow and gets our projects done.  We risk squandering this opportunity if we are too focused on our computer screens and mobile devices.

I encourage social media users – especially those tech-savvy digital natives of the Millennial generation who have never known a world without the Internet – to spend more time exploring the non-digital world, minimizing their dependence on technology and investing more time in developing long-term personal relationships.

Another FORUM research study revealed Millennials want to be connected all the time, everywhere, and their emotional attachment to their gadgets runs deep.  When asked if they sleep with or next to their cell phone, 83 percent of Millennials responded yes compared to 68 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of Baby Boomers.  They’ve integrated their social lives into their technological devices, and are far more likely than the previous generation to say they “felt cut off from friends and missed out on a large part of life when they were disconnected.”  The majority said they “couldn’t keep up with life without technologies.”

Businesses are already feeling the impact of a workforce overly-dependent on technology.  Texting and instant messaging have produced a generation coming into the workplace with sub-par skills in spelling, business communication etiquette and social interaction. The emergence of inexpensive communication technologies, social networking and crowdsourcing has also increased the tendency to see organizational hierarchy as disappearing or irrelevant.

In a world where any employee can tweet the CEO, the lines that traditionally delineated power and influence have been blurred. So much so in fact, when Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, teaches about corporate America’s hierarchical power structure, his students (largely Millennials) often push back. That model of power isn’t relevant anymore, they insist – it’s such 20th-century thinking!

But no matter what students believe, Pfeffer says the career game is still played by the old rules. Relationships with managers still matter when it comes to job tenure and career opportunities.  So do networking skills.  Even companies started by Millennials ultimately wind up with the same organizational structure around leadership and power.  “It’s easy to get diverted by the hype, or by what everyone else says is the new world order.  But don’t believe you can play the game by different rules,” he says.  “You can’t.”

This is problematic for Millennials, and more than a little ironic. According to FORUM research, unlike previous generations, Millennials view a strong relationship with their superiors as “foundational” to their short and long-term satisfaction at work.  They expect supervisors to be very attentive and supportive, offering ongoing, specific feedback.

Despite their position on the organizational chart, Millennials reject the policy of sharing information on a need-to-know basis. Instead, they want to be kept in the loop, expecting supervisors to freely share strategic plans and other traditionally managerial discourse.  This is a completely unrealistic expectation unless there’s a deep and genuine relationship between leaders and their teams.  ‘Linking’ or ‘friending’ your boss won’t suffice in getting Millennials the access they so desire.

But Millennials aren’t the only generation craving deeper connections with others, yet perhaps being overly dependent on online relationships. Many of us of different ages and in all walks of life are beginning to question the amount of time we ‘live’ online. Karen van Bergen, former CEO of Porter Novelli wrote this:

These tiny but seismic additions to how we connect with each other extend so fluidly, and we incorporate them into our daily lives so quickly, that many of us never notice the extraordinary costs they extract until we have already paid them. More than we care to admit, we now pay for the ease and frequency of our communication with the depth of our relationships. And those depths are where true and meaningful human connection resides.

When our communications are constant, but lacking depth and substance, our relationships become compressed, commoditized and superficial. The irony, of course, is that our vanishing connection to each other is actually driven by our deep need to connect. We are truly compelled, in a primal way, to engage with each other.

Some may argue that’s a little sad, or even disturbing. I think it is a beautiful truth, and one that presents us with extraordinary opportunities to utilize these new tools, platforms and innovations in ways that make them both right-sized within our lives and powerful facilitators of the deeper connections they reveal we need.

Over the 25 years that I’ve worked in the fast-paced, always-connected-and-available public relations industry, I’ve found that the moments I’ve spent in the actual presence of clients and colleagues — whether in a brainstorm, a lunch meeting, or simply sharing a cab to the airport — have been the most valuable in strengthening relationships. In business, in friendship and even in love, the principles of human connection remain the same.

Deep, satisfying relationships require attention, focus, interest — and most of all — our actual physical presence. Whether it is with your clients, your coworkers, your partner, your children or your friends, you must be physically and mentally present. If you want to build true connections, you must take the time and make the effort to actually be with the people to whom you wish to connect. It sounds so obvious, but it is so frequently missed.

Remember a time when being social drove people to houses rather than homepages; doorbells rang more often than cell phones and neighbors found the time to be more neighborly?

A spoken word film by Gary Turk entitled ‘Look Up’ has received almost 60 million views on YouTube. ‘Look Up’ is a lesson taught through a rhyming story, in a world where we continue to find ways to make it easier to connect with one another, but often results in us spending more time alone. It begins with this monologue:

I have 422 friends, yet I’m lonely. I speak to all of them every day, yet none of them really know me. I realized this media called social is anything but, when we open our computers and it’s our doors we shut. Community, companionship and a sense of inclusion… a world where we all share our best bits, but we leave out the emotion. We’re at our most happy with an experience we share, but is it the same if no one is there?

We pretend not to notice the social isolation. So when you’re in public and you start to feel alone, put your hands behind your head – step away from the phone. You don’t need to stare at your menu or at your contact list – just talk to one another – learn to co-exist. We’re becoming unsocial. We’re a generation of idiots – smart phones, dumb people.

And it ends with this plea from Mr. Turk:

So look up from your phone, shut down those displays. Take in your surroundings and make the most of today. Just one real connection is all it can take to show you the difference that being there can make. When you’re too busy looking down, you don’t see the chances you missed. We have a finite existence, a set number of days. Don’t waste your life getting caught in the net, ‘cuz when the end comes, nothing’s worse than regret. Go out into the world, leave distractions behind. Live life the real way.

Someday not too far down the road; everyone will find the right balance between optimizing technological tools and fully embracing the joys of real human connections. I hope that day comes soon.

What’s your view?

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.