Face to face

Tech Advisor - - FEATURE -

Meet­ing peo­ple in the flesh is so hard. All that eye con­tact, hug­ging and shak­ing hands. Do you bump cheeks, ac­tu­ally kiss or main­tain an awk­ward dis­tance? Who starts up the con­ver­sa­tion? When do you leave? Much bet­ter to sit in a dark­ened room and com­mu­ni­cate with the out­side world via a so­cial-media web­site...

Or not. In 10 tech­nol­ogy break­throughs (page 76) we’ve talked about the fan­tas­tic speed of growth that so­cial media has en­joyed, but not so much about the way it’s changed how we com­mu­ni­cate. It’s easy to sneer at the banal­ity of much of the con­tent shared on so­cial sites such as Twit­ter and Face­book, but con­sider the ben­e­fits.

Back in 1995, the only way you could talk with oth­ers about a shared in­ter­est was to join a group that al­lowed you to sub­scribe to a news­let­ter, or – if you were re­ally lucky – at­tend events set up by like-minded peo­ple. To com­mu­ni­cate with a group you had to be ge­o­graph­i­cally close. It al­most cer­tainly cost money. To­day, that’s very far from the case.

An in­ter­est­ing case study is PC Ad­vi­sor’s own so­cial media net­work: the PCA Fo­rum (head to pcad­vi­sor.co.uk/fo­rums). Where else could you get to­gether with 315,000 peo­ple in­ter­ested in tech­nol­ogy, in or­der to shoot the breeze about the latest hard­ware and soft­ware, solve prob­lems and sup­port PC projects? The an­swer is nowhere. And nowhere else could you ask a tech­ni­cal sup­port ques­tion, and have your PC prob­lems solved within hours, for free, by another user some­where else in the coun­try.

This kind of thing sim­ply didn’t hap­pen in 1995, and it’s all over the in­ter­net now. On Face­book alone there are spe­cial in­ter­est groups rep­re­sent­ing sub­jects as di­verse as knit­ting and sup­port for sports teams, there are vir­tual book groups and fan clubs, and dis­cus­sions on ev­ery­thing from the Leve­son in­quiry to Justin Bieber.

When world events hap­pen, eye wit­nesses can share news and opin­ion, in real time, with the rest of the globe. If you want to find out what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground of a coun­try with no ex­ter­nal in­ter­na­tional media, just search Twit­ter. Of course, this isn’t with­out prob­lems. Per­sonal opin­ion is of­ten re­ported as fact, flame wars can quickly de­scend to un­pleas­ant­ness, and hate mobs can brew up fright­en­ingly quickly. Fa­mous peo­ple are regularly in­cor­rectly re­ported as dead, too.

Per­haps more im­por­tantly, so­cial-media web­sites can pro­duce a gen­uine sense of com­mu­nity. There has been at least one mar­riage born from ‘meet­ing’ on our Fo­rum, and many more oc­ca­sions where peo­ple who have felt des­per­ate and lonely have been able to reach out and re­ceive sup­port from vir­tual friends. And that’s with­out even con­sid­er­ing the very suc­cess­ful re­sults of dat­ing web­sites: most peo­ple un­der a cer­tain age know some­one who met a sig­nif­i­cant part­ner via such a means.

De­spite my face­tious com­ments at the be­gin­ning of this chap­ter, it’s clear that there’s no sub­sti­tute for hu­man con­tact. But so­cial-media web­sites of­fer us a lot now that we didn’t have then.

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