Facebook and social networking are bubbles. They occupy a lot of time and airspace for a significant number of people. A spectrum of users interact instantly and globally. We don’t yet know what all the impacts will be. From my own experiences, I see that digital interaction impairs face-to-face communication. Here’s how.
* Distorted reality. We talk about having Facebook “friends” but that’s a misnomer. Unless I know them in real life, for me, they aren’t real. It’s the easiest thing in the world to set up a fake profile. Kids can do it and I’ve known several who have. Unfortunately, adults do too. We go by aliases. We change names and pictures. We hide behind tiny thumbnail avatars. Our profile information is only as true as we choose to make it. I’m not saying people I know only online aren’t real. They’re just not real for me, nor am I real to them.
* Gray social norms. Because we’re only cyber-personas, Facebook users don’t always adhere to the same real-life social norms. We get away with things we’d never try in person. Rules of engagement shouldn’t be different for social networking, but they are. Users act alone in cloistered cubbyholes. People online aren’t subjected to social censure because no one sees them. They can bully, stalk, harass and act crazy. The only digital accountability is what we hold ourselves to. There is little collective conscience.
* Too few strictures. Less accountability means fewer boundaries. I generally use Facebook for specific purposes: checking in with out-of-the house kids keep up with niche interest groups (book discussions, work groups). Used that way, it’s better. I can still waste too much time, but at least it’s somewhat goal-oriented. It’s random home page interaction that causes trouble. Confusion, misunderstanding, drama, exhibitionism, negativity, stalking, bullying–all these can stem from unstructured network surfing. Any positive interaction is overshadowed by one unpleasant episode. Plus, I tend to stay up too late playing on Facebook.
* Altered spoken communication. I write for a living. Written communication helps me organize my thoughts, except when I’m carrying on text conversations. Cyber interaction provides no face to face cues. Even Facetime or Skype have shortfalls. Body language is harder to read. Misunderstandings occur because there’s no accompanying physical presence. Text communication has erase and rewrite options. I can ponder a comment or missive for just the right phraseology. Face to face, it’s all improvisation. I used to be quite articulate. Since I’ve begun communicate more exclusively in writing, I tend to babble when I talk. Writing skills don’t translate to spoken word.