Face to face
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.