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Suzi Williams

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Popes, Pubs and Extraterrestrials

Posted: 15/03/2013 23:00

If extraterrestrials had decided to land on earth on Wednesday, what would they have found? People all over the world glued to the emanation from a tiny chimney pot in Rome.

They would have seen sighs of dismay as black smoke emerged. Then, later, whoops, even cheers, of delight and joy as the smoke turned white.

What simple people these earthlings are, they would have thought. They would then have departed quickly in their extraterrestrial spaceships to look for more intelligent life forms.

Of course, we have far more sophisticated communication techniques than a chimney stack. But it got me wondering. Is part of our fascination with events in St Peter's Square a longing for a simpler time? Is it the mystery and the tradition of the whole event that we love?

Just imagine if the powers-that-be in the Vatican had decided it was time for a change... and invited in some PR consultants.

"You need to wake up to the modern world," they would have said, as they zipped through elegantly designed PowerPoint slides (believe me, I've seen those pitches). "You need to be tweeting, pinteresting and blogging (ahem)."

If they'd taken their advice, we could have been treated to the Roman Catholic equivalent of our modern day talent contests. Pontiff Idol? It would have featured chirpy presenters, a panel of judges and withering put-downs ("I'm sorry, but there's no way you could ever pull off a purple cassock with that skin tone").

What would have happened? We'd have all switched off. Part of the fascination with events in the Vatican lay in their very simplicity.

Strangely enough, all this got me thinking about communications in general.

I often think about communications. As you can see from the top of this blog, I work for a telecoms company. A great big, shiny telecoms company (we hope). My Blackberry is grafted to my hand. I've always been that way. As a child my love of the phone was so great my sister called me Buzby (even if I'm not quite THAT old).

So, I'm a fan of communication. I see what good it can do in the world. Mobile networks are transforming lives in developing countries. The internet of things could change so much about our lives for the better.

But are we sometimes at risk of communicating too much? We have so many ways to connect, but are we losing the skills of really connecting.

A recent study by two German universities looked at the effect Facebook can have on our mood. They found one in three people felt worse after visiting the site. Seeing all those achievements, likes, photos and successes made them more dissatisfied with their own lives.

Daniel Gulati is an entrepreneur who researched and wrote a book called 'Passion & Purpose'. In it, he found a similar effect.

First, the comparison effect was rampant. People tend to post their best selves ("lovely dinner with my gorgeous husband!") rather than their more mundane or depressing selves ("concerned my career has taken a wrong turn" or "another night lying on the sofa eating crisps").

Second, our time gets fragmented as we frequently log on. How often have you seen a posting or tweet from someone of their lunch, drink or sunlounger? This not only makes us less "present" in that actual moment, it also leads to what psychologists call "switching costs": the loss in productivity when you change tasks.

Third, there's a decline in close relationships. Facebook and the like are not really complementing our real-life relationships, they're replacing them. You can have 500 Facebook friends and still no-one to go for a drink with on a Tuesday evening.

These days, I often feel that even calling someone, rather than just sending a message, tweet or email, is seen as excessive and perhaps needy. What's happened to us?

The lesson to me is clear. It's not so much about connecting less, but connecting better. So if you run into those extraterrestrials, don't just tweet a picture of them. Say hello and take them for that Tuesday evening drink.

 

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