We’ve ended up in a weird situation. We’re more connected than ever before yet we’ve become more isolated. We don’t share our troubles anymore because all we can expect to get back are empty platitudes. Why is that, and what can we do about it?
We’ve Traded Depth of Relationships for Breadth
Studies have suggested that we can only maintain a limited number of relationships without formal structure.1 The exact number has been debated but consensus and anecdotal evidence imply that it’s far below the thousands of friends that seems to be people’s goal on social media. “Dunbar’s number,” as it’s commonly called in academic circles, is about what used to be people’s “inner circle,” the group of people we tended to get to know quite well. With the advent of social media, we’ve largely lost our inner circles and only have “outer circles,” the people we interact with regularly but never get to know on any meaningful level. We need that distinction to properly budget the time and energy needed to build and maintain relationships.
Anonymity Breeds Incivility
This one doesn’t need any studies to support it. We’ve all seen the internet comment sections that start with benign trivialities and general immaturity then quickly devolve into irrelevant personal attacks, unfounded accusations, and ultimately unrelated hate speech. Now, why do people act like this? The anonymity insulates them from the consequences. The forum has become more public than ever but the audience comes from outside our own communities and we’re welcome to wear masks.
It’s like a Canadian donning a disguise and going to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. He can say whatever he wants and avoid any consequence. As soon as he takes off his disguise and goes home nobody even knows he said anything.
Extreme Views Get Equal Attention
Without the filter that’s created by risking one’s reputation, the extreme views come out en masse. There’s now no reason not to openly support injustice, since you’ll be able to go on as though nothing was ever said.
Much of the Message is Lost
Many people believe that 93% of communication is non-verbal. This isn’t actually true but it brings up a good point, our words are only part of our message. In some cases, non-verbal communication is even crucial. Consider these examples;
I go to my local mechanic hoping to have him fix a problem that’s beyond my abilities. He asks what kind of car it is. I reply, “2004 Mini Cooper.”
In this case, all the information he needs is conveyed by my words.
A guy approaches a woman in a bar and greets her. She replies, “Hi.”
In this case, her words carry almost none of the message. She may want him to leave her alone or, if she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, she may have just decided to marry this stranger. Most likely her message is somewhere in between.
I’ve presented how modern communication isolates but not yet what to do about. The first thing is to prioritise face-to-face interactions where it’ll be easier to build deeper relationships. Second, don’t put any stock in anything you find online, unless it seems a real person’s reputation is staked on it, it’s well sourced, or based in logic.
1. Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”. Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J.↩