Let's Talk: Is There an App for That?

Let's Talk: Is there an app for that?

With conversation a dying art, how do we put the social back into our media?

Written By Connie Smith Illustration By Lisa Pijuan-Nomura

In less than 20 years, the Internet has grown from a scientific experiment involving a handful of visionary researchers to more than 2.4 billion users worldwide.
As a result of the subsequent social media phenomenon, we are now becoming less reliant on the spoken word and interpersonal interaction or "face time." Regardless of the Internet connection, are we in danger, as Albert Einstein and Marshall McLuhan warned so prophetically, of losing the human connection?
We've all seen it: Couples at a romantic restaurant staring not into each other's eyes but their iPhones; employees emailing one another instead of walking to the office next door; young eyes darting to electronic devices on laps under the dinner table.
I must put this on the table right now: I relied on social and electronic media for researching much of this feature. In fact, you will see Facebook comments running along the bottom of this article.
Marie Bountrogianni, former Hamilton MPP, cabinet minister and educational psychologist by profession, is now a social media professor at the Chang School at Ryerson University.
"We are certainly born with the ability to communicate but we also differ in our abilities to communicate," says Bountrogianni. "The use of alternate means of communication, journals and diaries where we write and share our thoughts is not something new."
Bountrogianni is a huge proponent of online learning for its inclusiveness — its ability to transform the lives of people who otherwise would be shut out of an opportunity for higher learning.
I think what social media has done is shed light on something that maybe we've been neglecting for a long time, which is a focus on how to be social, participate in a culture and communicate effectively.
Alexandre Sévigny agrees. He is the director of the Master of Communications Management Program in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University.
"Social media and digital communication, smartphones, tablets — all these wonderful things have given us enormous benefits. They've been so empowering for segments of society that were living in isolation in the past…people who have trouble with mobility, people with autism, have found that the Internet is this incredibly liberating medium."
Bountrogianni credits Facebook for influencing change in the provincial government's legislation designed to toughen up restrictions on young drivers. "That was done overnight; and in the Middle East, democracy has been brought about through social media. Dictators can't hide anymore."
Both Bountrogianni and Sévigny, however, acknowledge that criticisms from parents today are justified.
"Just like our parents probably did when we planted ourselves in front of the TV," says Bountrogianni. "The complaint was too much TV and it was often perceived as a babysitter." But on the positive side, Bountrogianni says she learned how to speak English from watching TV because her immigrant parents did not.
Sévigny was a university student himself when the Internet became popular and then, when social media hit, "I remember feeling this surge of hope that this would create more connections between people, more democracy… That has come indeed but it's also made us alone together."
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other is the title of a book by MIT's Sherry Turkell, who Sévigny describes as a one-time techno utopianist like himself.
One of the challenges we face now in society, he says, is making sure everyone stays acquainted with real-world communication. "That means nonverbal communication, it means self-presentation and appearance, etiquette, something as simple as how to shake someone's hand with confidence or authority, or how to maintain eye contact." Basically, there's still nothing like being outside with friends at a picnic or playing sports to give you a strong sense of who you are and how best to interact with other people. "The world's your oyster with social media on the one hand but the downside is we've lost touch with ourselves, our bodies."
Richard Worzel of futuresearch.com is an author and speaker who helps corporations and organizations like Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM and the National Research Council plan for the future. Having interviewed him many times, I can attest to his fascination with new age gadgetry. Yet he's just as passionate that it's, "only part of what is involved in communication and yes there is no question in my mind that we are losing some of the skills related to face-to-face communication."
"If you are seated with somebody and you answer a cell phone call, that's considered to be rude," says Worzel. "You are effectively sending the message that the person on the phone is more important than the person who has taken the trouble to be in person with you. That's a definite social gaffe."
Bountrogianni concedes simple etiquette is an issue professionally and personally. "There is a certain casualness that has crept in because of social media that either we have to lighten up a lot as adults or they have to watch their step as young people."
But it's not just manners. "If you're texting or emailing you are using finger/thumb skills rather than voice, vocal expression and facial skills to send a message."
That, Worzel explains, places limitations on your ability to effectively connect with another person.
According to Worzel, only seven percent of information communicated is communicated by the meaning of the word, by the semantics of the word. "The rest of it is by body language, facial expression — even by pheromones and smell. All the subtleties of being in person and all of those are lost in any text interaction." As for those cute little emoticons? "Purely pale imitations of the real thing." He calls it presence or Gestalt, the German word that refers to form, shape or wholeness. "It tells you also subconsciously about their interactions even before you open your mouths and say something and even all that is lost in face-to-face communications done electronically."
This loss of presence, says Sévigny, will lead to a divide between young people who have been exposed to what he calls the the right cultural capital from parents who understand about charisma and manners and charm... "and other kids who maybe have less exposure to that."
Worzel explains that, by using electronic communications and multi-tasking, young children's brains are developing patterns that are different from today's adults.
Younger people then may be able to juggle more balls than older people, "although not perhaps as well as they think they are, as indicated by the number of traffic accidents involving electronic texting and cell phones and so on," Worzel says.
Perhaps the biggest cost in this new hi-tech "alone together" world is a loss of interpersonal sensitivity.
"The black and white aspects of text communication, of electronic communication, generally tends to mean we are more blunt; we are less subtle; we are more confrontational; we are less empathetic," says Worzel. Ultimately, that can lead to misunderstandings, confrontation and acrimony, far more quickly and more easily than in the past.
Could it be that the pendulum will swing back? Sévigny says it already is. "Social media is on its way to becoming more human," he says. Sévigny points to Twitter and Facebook and how we're becom ing more video and audio oriented than print in our social media.
"I think what social media has done is shed light on something that maybe we've been neglecting for a long time, which is a focus on how to be social, participate in a culture [and] communicate effectively."
Worzel uses Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, one of the most dangerous airports in the world, as an example.
At Ben Gurion, travellers are first stopped at two checkpoints, where guards "read you…smile and say 'good morning' and look into your eyes and see how you react. In their eyes the human empathy factor is far more important than any mechanical or electronic screening can be."
The benefits to our very health and cost of health care could well depend on the human connection.
Worzel believes that "empathy, the ability to have good bedside manner, to understand what's really going on inside the head of a patient, is going to be very important not only for the outcome of the particular patient but in terms of the effectiveness and costeffectiveness of the way we practice medicine. Teaching health care practitioners empathy is going to be a dollars and cents issue, not just a touchy-feeling issue."
The social electronic media is impacting our economy in massive ways, spawning what Sévigny calls a whole new industrial revolution, not to mention a political one. Having consulted on a number of election campaigns, he knows all about the value of interaction between politicians and constituents, "Now a political office without a social media strategy, you might as well just shutter the windows."
But just as it took some time for people to get used to the telephone and the television, Sévigny explains it will take time to "wrap our arms and minds around this new technology, which has made itself absolutely indispensible to us. We've advanced to the next level (beyond displaying images of our outrageous behaviours)…
so we now have social problems like cyber bullying and various forms of misrepresentation and plagiarism. We've left behind selfsabotage now we're into societal challenges." So how do we move forward in this brave new world but at the same time protect and nurture our ability to really connect with one other, to empathize?
Worzel says that being aware is the first step. "Older people see this as a threat in part because it's different from what we grew up with and it's possible that we are overstating the threat and the concerns but it's also possible that we're not. As somebody once said sometimes the sky really is falling."
Ironically, Bountrogianni recently found herself on the receiving end of a lesson on social etiquette, from her daughter of all people.
"On a rare beach vacation, my daughter told me she was going to take that damn Blackberry of mine and throw it in the Mediterranean. 'What is so important that can't wait til later?' That memory is in me and I applaud parents who have rules for their kids."
"You have to be reasonable but…I can't ask that of my kids if mine is on the table. No tech at the table when you are at the dinner or visiting. Put the gadgets away."
Sévigny acknowledges a burgeoning industry to teach people how to participate in this new medium. "We also need to have a greater emphasis on how to actually be a person in a real-world society as well as a person in a virtual society."
Worzel is following the development of a new barrier in faceto- face communications: smartphones that will evolve into computer companions who will screen our phone calls, act as gatekeepers and may actually sense what we are thinking and feeling, even teach us how to behave towards other people. "An app," he chuckles, "to teach you how to empathize!"
But Worzel insists that to truly master interpersonal communications, you need to study with a human being. "I think we still have a role to play for a while, maybe not eventually — but who knows?"
Bountrogianni will tell her social media students, "We don't want to kill it. We just want to control it before it controls us."
A generation ago, another communications professor said, "A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it."
Technology has changed since Marshall McLuhan wrote that but regardless of the medium, let's hope the message still stands.

-as published in the spring 2013 edition of Hamilton Magazine http://www.hamiltonmagazine.com/sitepages/?aid=7696&cn=FEATURES&an=Let's Talk: Is there an app for that?