Technology is changing the way we connect and share ideas by giving us unprecedented ease to communicate with others all over the globe. In recent years, emailing has given way to group micro-blogging. Many people now prefer to use their cell phones to text rather than to talk. For good or ill, the preference for virtual communication is changing the skills we use to interface with one another in profound ways.
Group micro-blogging on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook is all the rage. It allows someone to quickly scan a list of brief posts from friends, family, and others they find interesting. This helps people stay connected with one another without the time-consuming chore of creating and reading multiple emails. Unlike private emails, the posts can usually be viewed by the general public as well. If someone likes what they read, they can elect to follow your posts and you can choose whether to follow them in return. This is how networks of people with similar interest grow to include folks from around the globe that likely would have never met in person.
A recent article in The Tennessean highlights a high school Principal who gave her cell phone number to all 2000 students. She receives and answers an average of 300 messages per week. Parents and faculty have her number too. Because everyone has full schedules, this has become a useful tool to open dialogue with the student body that may never have taken place otherwise.
Engaging with others at our convenience has become one of the major attractions of communicating by these methods. While it increases some level of connectivity, doing so comes at a price. When we read messages that were posted earlier in the day, we are no longer interfacing with others in real-time and are participating out of context with the moment the communication was issued.
We also lose the ability to communicate via body language. Reading text messages does not fully convey tone of voice or the person’s demeanor. When we are in the physical presence of another person, we have the opportunity to see and feel their state of mind even when they don’t speak words. When two people are less than ten feet apart, they are engulfed in each other’s heart-fields. The electrical activity of the heart generates this field and it can be measured with EKG probes, even when they are placed several feet away from the body. Because the physical body is a multi-faceted antenna system, mirroring the body shape of the other person further opens the dialogue. This technique is so successful that it is widely used by counselors and salesman. Texting eliminates all of these useful communication skills.
Even when folks are texting in real-time, each has the opportunity to take a moment to consider their reply. By using virtual communication methods, we lose the ability to witness someone’s initial reaction and how they actually received the information. This is especially true when someone is posting to a forum that is publicly viewable.
When we meet new people only in the virtual realm, all we know of them is what they chose to share. Even though many may use their real names or include a brief profile, communicating in the cyber world still offers a certain level of anonymity and a sense of control over what others are able to know about the people they chat with regularly.
A study that examined children interfacing with robotic pets clearly showed that most folks have an innate ability to humanize inanimate objects by projecting their own feelings onto it. After playing with the robotic pets, the children were asked if they would rather keep their human best friend or spend time with the toy. Overwhelmingly, most children immediately responded that they preferred the pet. Such reactions do raise questions of whether we are just caught up in the novelty of technology or whether we really do prefer virtual relationships because they are fun. Not to mention the lack of real compromise and availability they offer in being easier to deal with because we can simply put them on ignore when we have other things to do.
Remember when music synthesizers first came on the market? For over a decade, the buying public went crazy for pop music that included electronically derived sounds. Synthesizers are still just as popular today, but for a different reason. They are most often used to mimic the sound of real instruments and allow musicians a wider palette of sound without becoming a virtuoso on multiple instruments. Another interesting twist to this scenario is the surge of popularity in the video game Guitar Hero. It has actually encouraged more folks to take lessons on a real guitar.
Perhaps virtual communication is just a phase that will lead to a desire for more face-to-face communication on a global scale. If so, will internet video satisfy that urge and continue the illusion that we are fully interfacing with others? Interacting via an avatar in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are becoming increasingly popular as well. Because we have such a high capacity to project our inner reality onto the activities we see on the screen, will we want to ditch our physical relationships in favor of our digital ones? Only time will tell what interpersonal skills we will lose or gain as technology continually introduces new ways to communicate.