Social Media is emotionally deficient

A blog post triggered a reflection on the nature of human connections in Web 2.0. I asked myself: we are in touch, but are we connected?

I have been reading a particular blog for quite some time. The author has a witty, direct, fast-paced writing style. I really enjoy reading the thoughts and adventures of this 30-something breast cancer survivor.

A few weeks ago, she wrote that she had been diagnosed with incurable bone cancer but was optimist about the doctors’ ability to manage her disease for several years to come. Last week, she blogged that her first nephew had been born and proudly shared pictures of the baby. Later the same week, another blog post informed us that the cancer had spread to her brain and that she had months to live.

I was incredibly saddened by that last blog post. I felt so sad that I wanted to reach out to her. But then I stopped. I asked myself ‘What would I say to her?’ For as much as I feel that I ‘know’ the person and feel ‘connected’ to this blogger and her story, the fact is that we never met. She wouldn’t know me from Adam!

In the end, I did leave a message in her blogpost. It was a heartfelt message but not the one I felt like writing, initially – I changed it to reflect the fact that while she is familiar to me, I am a stranger to her.

Since then I have been thinking about the role of technology in human connections, in particular social media. Until this episode, I felt that technology was an enabler. That Web 2.0 had brought me closer to other human beings. For instance, through LinkedIn or Facebook I reconnected with people I had not seen in 5… 10… 20 years. Through Twitter and Slideshare I came across really interesting individuals that I would never have met otherwise, and some of whom I met in person later on.

But, really, being in touch with these persons is not the same as being connected to them, is it?

I recalled a talk I heard some time ago, by Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. In her research, Professor Turkle noted how people tend to cut off certain kinds of conversations from the Internet. Specifically, we tend to avoid bad news and problems. Further, she said that technology is often used to close down conversations, rather than open them up. That we created a communication culture that dumbs down the quality of what we say to each other.

The recent incident mentioned at the start of this post made me think about the trade-off between the volume and velocity of connections on the one hand and the quality of those connections on the other hand. It made me conclude that social media is emotionally deficient. That social media brings us together and, yet, keeps us apart.

Is this about the platform? Or is it about the users? Or is it about learning and adjusting to what technology – any technology – can and can not do? And is this something that we can and should counteract?

What do you think?

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