Social Media: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' Brains!

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (18-Jun-2009)

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I know that social media is a very divisive topic, but I didn't know to what extent until I wrote last month's op-ed column, "Is Social Media Diluting the Message?". The article brought out strong proponents and opponents on either side of the issue.

On one side, proponents extolled the benefits of a hyper-connected world and boasted social media's ability to connect people with each other, completely free of geographic barriers. On the other side, opponents warned of the potential social and physiological dangers Web sites have on our abilities to relate to, and interact with, others at a human level—some even went as far as claiming that the widespread use of social media Web sites are effectively "rewiring" the minds of young users.

A fellow writer in the medical community informed me of various discussions among psychologists and neuroscientists who are debating the potential harms of online social networking—especially among children. They contend that human beings evolved to communicate with the use of all five senses. We communicate and gather physical cues through body language, eye contact, touch, smell, and inflections in our speech. But when you limit or eliminate all these nuances and boil down the complexities of communications to text on a monitor, something is lost.

The emotion, context, and meaning of our communications can't be adequately captured with a simply emoticon or "my mood is" state on social media sites. I once had an unfortunate incident when someone I was connected to through an online social networking site mistook my rather benign message stating, "I resent the email" ("resent", in this case, meant "to send something once again"), to mean that I "felt bitter or indignant" about her email.

So, with the prevalence of social media Web sites, for both business and play, how is communication going to change in the future? More importantly, how are we going to change?

Will humanity evolve (or some would say, "devolve") into an anti-social society unable to communicate with one another at the most basic human level? Perhaps we'll be walking around sporting USB or FireWire ports in our navels, and we'll only be able to communicate by plugging into others' interfaces. Pharmaceutical companies will team up with IT companies and make billions of dollars in USB/FireWire prophylactics for "safe communications". And Hollywood film producers will want to get into the action and make romantic comedies about a poor, working-class USB boy from the mean streets of Compton trying to win the heart of a rich FireWire socialite girl from New York's Upper West Side.

No one knows who will win the war of words between social media evangelists and social media doomsayers. Will social media break down all physical barriers and allow us to learn about others from all over the world? Or will social media make it difficult for children to communicate properly with anything that doesn't have a glowing "ON" button? Unfortunately, no studies exist on the long-term effects of social media since it's still relatively new.

Social media is a mere a blip in the overall evolution of communication, so the jury is still out as to how it will change the manner in which we interact with others. We probably won’t have any empirical evidence for another decade or so. But, just in case those psychologists are right, better keep your navels clean.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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