3 Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Communication (and Relationships)

Have you also felt, on occasion, that social media – while making it easier to stay in touch – makes it harder to stay friends? That is sucks you in up into a virtual bubble, to the point where you get no satisfaction?

And yet, we keep scrolling, reading, texting.

Why does that happen? Well, here’s one fascinating and important explanation.

But let’s start at the beginning. Online communication introduces a distance between interlocutors. It is a known psychological fact that we react a lot more empathetically to actual people we can see and touch than to abstractions. Add to that the fact that often individuals will deliberately publicize a specific part of their lives, instrumentalizing experience – so what you are actually interacting with is not a real person, it’s a persona – and this crazy mix has the potential to generate anything from envy, to frantic and meaningless over-communication, to conflict and avoidance of communication.

There are other factors that can affect your communication as well:

1. The message exchange (I am deliberately avoiding the term “communication” at this point) which takes place on websites, on a messaging app, or on-screen as a comment to a post is often pure text. The exchange is stripped, peeled, and eviscerated of some of its essential ingredients like paraverbal and non-verbal clues, which especially in the case of very short utterances can make up almost 93% (according to Mehrabian and Pabst-Weinschenk) of the meaning.

This can lead to misunderstandings and less than fulfilling communication (and it might be the reason why some people are shifting away from text-driven social media like FB towards image-based ones like Instagram). Even emojis and gifs cannot fully compensate for the complexity of human expression, feeling, and emotion – nor for body language, tone of voice, eye contact. The message is truncated and the real-life energy simply isn’t there.

(In fact, recent marketing studies suggest that –  among rising skepticism, declining attention and the early signs of multitasking fatigue – people are already looking for more immersive experiences, more meaningful interactions and more visual language.)

2. Online communication is asynchronous (the partners in the exchange do not share the same space, time, general environment, vibe and atmosphere), which can also lead to misunderstandings. It is also less satisfying and more confusing.

Communicators must also keep this in mind when they design content or digital interactions: they can’t anticipate with 100% accuracy in which setting/state they will reach their audience, or what else might have happened between the time the message was put out and the time it was received and how that might influence the interpretation. (In marketing at least, for this very reason, push messages are becoming a thing of the past. The new communication world is opt-in.)

3. On Social Media, individuals tend to communicate more intensively when:

  • they are bored, feeling impatient, or have time to kill,
  • they have an ulterior motive (want to push an agenda, to influence, to further their self-image or self-narrative – which often makes communication inauthentic and more like a cacophony of monologues),
  • they feel excited or bothered by something that needs to be shared (and they cannot “discharge” those emotions with enough people in real life).

So you tend to get an incomplete view of somebody, as oftentimes what we see are only the things that exceed a certain threshold, the peaks, the highs and the lows, and we miss out on a person’s “middle range”, or their average state. (But, to be honest, that’s not the reason we check our feed, is it? To see people in their home clothes, quietly doing the dishes?!…) It is the peaks that generate emotion and make us keep scrolling. Plus: one other important aspect that’s missing in this new kind of communication are the “stopping cues” (more about those, in this fascinating TEDx talk.)

Our cognitive and empathetic abilities are limited, as is our time. How do we choose to spend them? More information does not necessarily mean more knowledge or better understanding, quite the contrary. A constant flood of irrelevant information that needs to be parsed and analyzed acts like an overdose on our cognitive abilities, impairing empathy, cluttering our brain and exhausting our senses.

Social media is not conducive to deep reflection and analysis. We are bombarded with often irrelevant information at high speed. Most people are in a hurry or face interruptions (checking your FB on the subway, for instance); they scroll down before having taken the time to fully read or understand a post, an article, an opinion. They will often distribute likes according to spur-of-the-moment impulses, or because they want to gratify someone they know with a thumbs-up. (There is some pretty strategic Liking happening on FB – socially savvy people have recognized how this can affect their real-world interactions and are using Likes as a kind of diplomatic tactic.)

On the other hand, companies will use highly engaging, emotional and visual messages to vie for your attention and interest. So how do you think we can have better control of our communication and more fulfilling human relationships?

What are your thoughts on this?



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