Sometimes I wonder if the Internet and mobile technology is gradually making our interactions with each other a lot less personal and meaningful. I was at the grocery store earlier this week and noticed that the woman ahead of me in the checkout lane was so absorbed in her phone that she didn’t even look at the cashier once. She simply handed over her money with one hand while scanning her phone with the other.
This technological detachment, however, is today’s reality. Instead of spending time with friends and family, we reach out via phone, text, or instant message. That concerns me, because the overall result is less face time. We need to see each other: forget all the cute emoticons that are supposed to relay what we’re feeling. As far as I’m concerned, ten texts can never take the place of a face-to-face chat over coffee.
This issue actually goes beyond interactions with friends and family: it applies to the world at large. There’s something intangibly real and essential about talking with another person face to face. That person becomes an important human connection, not just someone whose text pops up on your cell phone.
Studies have shown that face-to-face contact comforts us and creates an overall sense of well-being. It can be with your best friend or a even a friendly cashier. This is actually one of the primary reasons why Albertsons decided to remove self-checkout lanes out of its stores: the lack of human contact had resulted in overall customer dissatisfaction.
With sites like Instagram and Facebook, we have a lot of extended connections. But there’s no strength in numbers in this instance. How are you supposed to keep up with over 1000 virtual friends, many of whom you’ve probably never met? If you were away from your phone or computer, would you even remember their names? Probably not. We need to start valuing quality in our personal connections instead of quantity.
I know one woman who has over 2,000 Facebook friends. She’s an expert in her field and writes well, so her posts get a lot of feedback. But when I asked her about the quality of these online relationships, she admitted that she has few friends that she can trust and spend quality time with. This is a good enough reason to consider putting a limit on the time we spend cultivating online friendships and planning a lot more coffee dates.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar revealed that we as human beings are limited to a certain number of stable, meaningful connections in our social network: 150 to be exact. Despite a present-day ability to connect with hundreds, even thousands of people over the Internet, we can really sustain a genuine friendship with approximately 150 people in our social networks.
While technology has provided us with a degree of social connection that would have never been possible prior to the advent of the Internet, and has allowed us to preserve and sustain long-distance associations that would have otherwise lapsed due to lack of regular contact, the fact remains that we are spreading ourselves too thin, as well as slowly degrading the quality of social interaction that we all need. I could never imagine limiting my interactions with my kids in that respect, so why not apply the same argument to friends?
So what are we doing with 2000 Facebook friends? Why are we texting all the time instead of meeting face to face? Why are we glued to our phones instead of chatting with the cashiers who ring us through at the grocery store? Let’s spend more time talking and less time texting. We need to remember that ‘contact’ is not only a name for an entry in your phone’s address book.