The Relational Medium
Zeb M Carbaugh
The internet took our society by storm and evolved to become something that is intricate to all of our daily lives in just a few short decades. It brought new technologies that allowed for global connectedness that is available at all hours of the day. Some argue that this new way of communicating brings everyone together in a positive way and that the internet is helping to evolve our society. Others argue that being constantly connected draws our attention away from the world right in front of us and that the internet is devolving our society into digital zombies. Both sides have brought compelling concepts to further their side. But why is this relatively new technology causing such an uproar?
For the most part, it isn’t the emergence of a new way to communicate to people that causes fear in our society. It is the widespread acceptance of that new way of communicating. The Pew Center’s research found that 84 percent of adults in America use the internet and that has increased about 30 percent since the year 2000. This widespread use of the internet has drastically changed other types of communication. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio and other more traditional forms of mass communication have had to adapt to stay alive in our society. Older generations have found that their children and grandchildren have a much better understanding of the internet than themselves. The youth in our society has grown up with and therefore understand and accept the digital age more than older generations who feel that the internet is something to be either feared or a nuisance. The internet was something that hit our society in a very quick pace. The rise of new technology in the digital age has brought on new types of crime, invasions of privacy and other unsavory practices into our world, but those who have accepted this new relational medium have harnessed it to improve their lives.
Social media is one of the largest aspects of the internet that has worked itself into and almost digitally mirrored our lives. Not just the youth of our world have accepted social media as a part of their lives. People of all ages have been known to use social media as a tool to stay connected with other individuals and society as a whole. My grandmother has a Facebook account that she uses to stay up to date on her children, grandchildren and long lost friends. Other people, like my grandmother, have found social media to be a positive way to stay connected to people they personally know and people or organizations they have never met in person. On one side of the argument, social media is seen as something that takes away from our daily lives. “We are, perhaps, too wired — more attuned to events and friends thousands of miles away than to what’s going on right in front of our faces, more likely to share cat videos over smartphones than to play catch in our backyards. Perhaps these technological changes are compelling us to withdraw from the physical world, promoting antisocial behavior and undermining our true relationships” (Masket, 2014). Face-to-face interactions maybe seen as a dying form of communication by some, and for good reason. “Americans collectively check their smartphones upwards of 8 billion times per day. That’s an aggregate number that refers to the number of times all Americans throughout the country look at their mobile devices on a daily basis” (Eadicicco, 2015). How many of those phone checks do you think are due to social media interactions? It is established that social media is a giant part of our collective lives, and the reasons for concern have been identified. But the research has found that social media, for the most part, is no threat to our traditional social interactions. “The on-line world is not truly distinct from the off-line one. We use the Internet and social media largely to stay in touch and make plans with people we already know from face-to-face relationships. Email and social media communications aren’t better or worse than in-person ones; they’re just different. And they complement each other” (Masket, 2014). Our social media interactions don’t just complement our off-line interactions. They have the power to connect us to the rest of the world.
Think of the internet as a giant empathy machine. The struggles around the world are something that most people in first-world countries used to be able to ignore because of the physical distance between them. It has become more difficult to ignore such struggles across the world with the ability to stream live video of what it happening. World renowned philosophers such as the Dalai Lama have said that there are dangers of technology, but one good thing it has brought is a greater sense of a global community and global awareness. Researchers in Australia have found that information and communication technologies (ICT) such as social media applications can have a positive impact on the mental well-being of the youth of their society. “Based on the research conducted in phase I of the project and the pilot evaluation, it appears that ICT does indeed play an important role in the lives of marginalized young people and that it can be used as a tool for promoting civic engagement. This suggests there is great potential for using ICT in mental health promotion projects with marginalized young people in the future” (Metcalf, Blanchard, McCarthy, & Burns, 2008). Other research supports that the digitization of our identities or creating social media profiles has created a new space to support real world issues. “It appears that users are recreating their digital identity in a way that includes elements of political and social ideologies. For example, a Facebook presence, which typically incorporates many fun and social applications also includes stated affiliations with a set of causes. For example, ‘Free Burma’, ‘One Laptop Per Child’, ‘Save the Tasmanian Devils’ or an acceptance to attend ‘The Australian Election Party’. This indicates that a generation often accused of being apathetic and disengaged are entering political and social debate using new technological applications to incorporate their viewpoints as an integral part of their digital identity” (Satchell & Foth, 2008). These research findings, that said ICT and digital identity creation could be used to promote civic engagement and political engagement, support the Dalai Lama’s statement that new technologies are improving global awareness. Social media’s integration into our daily lives has improved our societal communications. It has made us creatures of digital engagement. Through our friends sharing posts about political campaigns and societal issues, we have become more aware and engaged in our world. Societally speaking the internet has improved our world, but what has it done on a more personal level?
Most can think back to an instance when they were speaking to someone only to look over to them only paying attention to their phone. The internet and the technologies that have spawned from it have been known to spread and dilute peoples’ attention. “Researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms. The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds. Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds” (Watson, 2015). Having our attention spans become shorter than a goldfish is not a good thing. The same research conducted by Microsoft that found our attention spans to be decreasing in length also found that our ability to multitask has been improved. This makes sense, we check our phones to stay connected while we are watching television or having a conversation with others. The side that is for technological advancement argues that this is creating highly productive individuals, and that our relationships aren’t being destroyed by social media. They argue that these individuals are merely increasing the number of relationships and not diluting the quality of the relationships. The other side of the argument is that it is impossible to increase the number of relations and not decrease the quality of those relationships. One can see how both these arguments have some valid points when it comes to social media usage, but there are other applications other than social media applications that contribute to our relationships.
Mobile dating applications such as Tinder, Bumble, and Grinder are designed to create specific types of interpersonal relationships. Just as one would access Facebook or Twitter from their mobile device, one can also access online dating applications that encourage users to meet off-line to create romantic relationships. These online dating sites and applications have made a decent sized impression on the romantic side of our society. “One in 10 Americans have used a dating site or mobile app, and 23 percent have met a spouse or long-term partner through these sites. In fact, 11 percent of American couples who have been together for 10 years or less met online” (Dutcher, 2014). In regards to interpersonal relationships, it is hard to argue that these online dating site and applications are harming the way we communicate until you look at the dark side of online dating. “The industry still has a long way to go, however, especially when it comes to trust. A 2013 Pew study found that 54 percent of online daters felt someone had seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile. They’re not wrong; 81 percent of online daters reported inaccurate information about their weight, height, or age. They’re also apt to lie about their income and sexuality, and using out-of-date flattering photos is an all too common practice” (Dutcher, 2014). Online dating has created a number of long-term relationships in our society and for those people it is a great use of the internet. For the rest of us who haven’t found Mr. or Ms. right through online dating, these sites and applications have created a sense of distrust amongst our fellow human beings. To some, creating misleading identities may not seem like such a big deal, but to most of our society, online identities have taken precedence over our real world identities. “Younger users are paradoxically, becoming less concerned about issues of digital identity theft or the misappropriation of information. Furthermore, the studies reveal that in a society saturated by reality television, personal blogs, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook a new generation of user wants to reveal, rather than conceal, elements of their real life identity, a real life which is increasingly merging with their digital life” (Satchell & Foth, 2008). In a society that holds their online presence in such a high level of importance, false or misleading identities is a serious violation of trust. Whether it is our society’s glamorization of the perfect body or some other reason, the truth is that most people create misleading online identities. This is not just the case for online dating. Social media users have also been known for creating misleading online identities of themselves. Most young people understand that people create these glamorized versions of themselves, and when they see someone’s online identity they take the information given with a grain of salt. Older generations, however, are not as in-the-loop as younger generations and tend to fall victim to these false profiles.
You may have noticed a pattern. The older generations have constant problems with technology while younger generations are far more accepting of technological advancements. Older generations find newer technologies, especially ones that include the internet, to be confusing and fearful. They haven’t grown up with these technologies, and their understanding of them tends to be more limited than the generations that grew up using them. The Pew Center’s research on the different generations’ use of the internet shows that “in 2000, 70% of young adults used the internet and that figure has steadily grown to 96% today. At the other end of the spectrum, 14% of seniors used the internet in 2000, while 58% do so today. Not until 2012 did more than half of all adults ages 65 and older report using the internet” (Internet Communications ppt 1). Most of the arguments that arise against the internet come from the older generations that don’t have the same level of understanding as the younger generations. Our class Power Points and discussion support this claim. “The digital tools that are reshaping our economy make more sense to young digital natives than to members of older generations… chances are many digital immigrants will find managing online privacy a daunting prospect” (Internet Communications ppt 1). Age isn’t the only factor to consider when analyzing the internet’s role in our lives. Race, education, income, culture, and occupation type all play on how people use the internet. Depending on what categories a person falls into, they might use the internet in an entirely different capacity than a someone else. This is something to consider when understanding how the internet has changed how we communicate on both personal and societal levels. One might even argue that the internet has contributed to the separation of our society by age, race, education and so on. Think about it.
To communicate to someone that is the same age as yourself, there is a list of rules or courtesies one must follow. In order to communicate to someone who’s age greatly differs from your own, those rules are completely different. For example, if I (22-year-old white male in college) wanted to start a conversation with my sister (25-year-old white female fresh out of college), I would start with a “What’s up” text. If I wanted to start a conversation with my grandmother (85-year-old white female with a high school diploma), I have to send a card first, because she feels that starting a conversation over the phone is too impersonal.
Dutcher, J. (2014, February 10). Big data seeks online Love [Infographic] – Blog. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from Berkeley School of Information, https://datascience.berkeley.edu/online-dating-data/
Eadicicco, L. (2015, December 15). Americans check their phones 8 Billion times a day. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from Time, http://time.com/4147614/smartphone-usage-us-2015/
Masket, S. (2014, June 2). Don’t fear the network: The Internet is changing the way we communicate for the better. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from Pacific Standard, https://psmag.com/don-t-fear-the-network-the-internet-is-changing-the-way-we-communicate-for-the-better-32352d7b302#.wovggo978
Metcalf, A., Blanchard, M., McCarthy, T., & Burns, J. (2008). Bridging the Digital Divide: Utilising technology to promote social connectedness and civic engagement amongst marginalised young people. Community Broadcasting Association of Australia
Satchell, C., & Foth, M. (2008). The Re-creation of Identity in Digital Environments and the Potential Benefits for Non-Profit and Community Organisations. Community Broadcasting Association of Australia
Watson, L. (2015, May 15). Humans Have Shorter Attention Span than Goldfish, Thanks to Smartphones. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/humans-have-shorter-attention-span-than-goldfish-thanks-to-smart/