It's become commonplace to complain that social media is to blame for some societal ill - we're all too stressed and too unhappy because we've been going on Twitter too much. But no one can deny that the rise of social media - largely text-based - has meant that we're often staring at the words on our screens instead of the face of the person sitting across from us. And it's not doom saying to worry that this is making our lives worse - without talking to someone face-to-face, we miss out on body language, and that means that our ability to communicate and form emotional connections with others is being seriously undermined.
How Technology Impacts Our Communications
It's easy to underestimate just how important body language is for communication - it's something we tend to pick up on unconsciously, so we tend to pass over it without taking much notice. But what we see really can change what we hear - take the example of the McGurk Effect, where what you see someone mouthing can totally change what you think they're saying. Or think about the famous story about the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate - people who watched it thought that Kennedy had won, and people who'd listened to it on the radio thought that Nixon had won. And this isn't just that Kennedy looked better - whether people described how Kennedy spoke has presidential or inexperienced depended on whether that watched him or only listened to him.
So body language contributes an enormous amount to what we pick up in communication - and in particular, communication of our emotional states. But such communication is necessary for a sense of community and emotional connection with others - it takes the emotional intelligence to pick up on others' subtle emotional states to feel genuinely intimate with them. So when social media makes it impossible to pick up on body language, it doesn't just make it harder to communicate - it actually makes it impossible to create a genuine community at all. In spite of the apparent reach of our social networks, in fact they can't hope to be as meaningful as the network of relationships we form through everyday face-to-face interaction.
For example, research has found that people who use Tinder have worse self-esteem and are more concerned with their appearance than those who aren't using the dating service, and that dating sites tend to encourage shallower conversations. Is it any surprise there's a whole axis of communication - body language - that you can't use, that you will end up focussing more on your appearance or have less satisfying conversations?
Much of what makes you unique can only be presented through relatively ephemeral cases of body language, which can't be adequately replaced when you're only communicating through text. By removing that dimension to how you communicate, you will inevitably struggle to show the same depth - meaning you focus on things which are much easier to communicate, like appearance. Again, it seems that social media is undermining the same emotional connections it should be facilitating. Even when it comes to technology like video conferencing, which is clearly better for face-to-face, there are some differences between being caught on camera and being in person. With video interviews on the rise, candidates have some things to consider in order to achieve the optimum first impression - as this body language guide from videoconference app-makers, LyteSpark, makes clear.
As well as enabling us to expand our job-seeking horizons, in some cases, technology can genuinely foster better emotional connections. Smell Dating - supposedly the first "mail odor dating service" - might sound silly, but by bringing a strong sensory element into online dating it makes up for what online dating, mostly text-based with at best a few static images, is currently missing. Mindings and Rally Round Me use technology to combat loneliness among older people and keep them connected.
So while social media certainly poses challenges to how we communicate, face-to-face communication is too important to lose - although new technologies may mean that we carry it out in new ways going forward.