Is Social Media Making Us Asocial?

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless

T. S. Eliot drew an unmistakably bleak and cynical picture of the post-WWI era in his timeless poem, ‘The Hollow Men’ that he wrote in 1925. But how is such a poem relevant to the present day and age, especially in the era of social media?

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless

Ring a bell? Take a few seconds and look around. No, just make a quick list of the number of social media platforms you are on and the total number of devices you own. Done? How many you got? If you ask me, I’m on uncountable (didn’t quite count due to sheer laziness) number of social media platforms and own four devices (yikes, guilty as charged!) which enable me digital connectivity.

I came across this thought-provoking blog post titled, Communication on the Internet is Broken, the link to which was posted by Dr. Jennifer Stromer-Galley (whose class on social media research methods I’m taking this semester) on a Facebook group for Internet research. The blog post raises some reverberating questions and points to some resounding social media trends which are altering the way we communicate. There’s no denying that we live in an age of multi-platforms. The blog post cites a Pew report on the communication habits of teens that found that 71 percent of teens use more than one social network site. Not only are we surrounded by multiple social media platforms, the world as we know it today (at least the developed, technology-obsessed parts of it) is a multi-device environment. Another Pew study on device ownership found that 36% of Americans own all three devices—smartphone, computer, and tablet.

Social Media–multiple platforms

In spite of the multiple platforms and devices, are we truly connected? The aforementioned blog post argues that despite the presence of countless ways to be in contact with one another, with great strides in “one-to-many” ways to communicate, humans are still using “one-to-one” modes, which the blogger calls “slow and inefficient”, and that, in fact, communication on the Internet is broken.

I beg to differ.

Means to an end

First, it’s true that traditional modes of one-to-one communication tend to be more involved and time-intensive, and thereby, slow, but by no means are they “inefficient”. They are supremely efficient in terms of community relations and relationship building aspects of human communication, which even though require much more time than instant messaging, are based on the same principles of synchronous, real-time interaction. The seamless interaction of offline and online communication techniques are reflected in the user-generated social media phenomena of online reviews, crowdfunding and e-petitioning, where some of the traditional modes of communication such as word-of-mouth marketing, relationship management and community building seem to be at play. Moreover, in the dichotomy of whether the Internet is bridging gaps or building walls, it’s just safe to say that in some cases, it does the former, in some the latter, and in other cases, it does both. So, there’s no definite or absolute answer. It all depends on who is using it and for what purpose. In that, social media are a means to an end.

Not broken but diversified

Does the end justify the means? Does the presence of numerous social media platforms improve communication? Yes, it does and has, to a great extent. Thus, I argue, communication is not broken, and our collective voices are not quiet and meaningless.

Howard Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory that people modify their speech or the way they communicate to accommodate that of others they are interacting with. People operate within the similar paradigm when communicating online, be it one-to-one or one-to-many, by adjusting their speech style to accommodate others’. Thus, digital communication is not broken but has vastly diversified, necessitating the development of an efficient way to tap into all that constantly evolving traction.

Multiple standards

But is “interoperability” the solution, or would having homogenous standards solve all our miseries of social media-triggered isolation? Currently, social media management tools such Hootsuite and TweetDeck offer some kind of interoperability, which could potentially make social media-enabled communication slightly more manageable. However, a cookie cutter standard to bring about more unified communication in a diversified, universal domain of social media might not be the silver bullet. If we can find ways to develop continuously-evolving solutions and multiple standards to capture the momentum of social media, perhaps then our digital world will neither end with a bang nor a whimper.


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