Is the bite-sized world of social media leading to bite-sized and unsubstantial personal relationships? This was a question I asked myself recently when looking at some of my own relationships — friendship, romantic, professional, and family alike. Social media plays a role in many of those relationships these days, and what I noticed is that it isn’t always for the better.

Today let’s talk about how social media can inhibit the growth of deeper personal relationships with others, and then we’ll take a look at the other side of the coin and how social media can play a positive role as well.

How Social Media Might Inhibit the Growth of Personal Relationships

 

Here’s what I noticed when looking at my own relationships. Those that were heavily based in contact through social media outlets were much less substantial than those relationships where we kept in touch in person, over the phone, or via email on a regular basis. How those deeper relationships are maintained varied mostly based on physical distance.

For example, I have plenty of colleagues I consider friends. Many of them I keep in touch with solely through Twitter, social networks like LinkedIn, and blog comments. Those relationships tend to be much more casual, and we tend to know much less about each other. Once we hit the phase of emailing each other though, things change. Those relationships were much deeper than the social media based ones. We could have more private conversations. We could have longer conversations. And I found that people tended to open up much more about things unrelated to work via email than they did in social media.

The same was true with family. Those who keep in touch and work on maintaining a deeper personal connection generally turned to email, the phone, and in this case also snail mail. Those who only kept in touch via social media did so much more casually.

Sure, it’s possible this is exclusive to me and my network of personal and professional connections. But for it to affect so many people and relationships in that network similarly leads me to think otherwise, although that’s not to say there won’t be exceptions. You see, social media makes it easy to get to the point and move on. And it makes it easy to provide so much “fluff” information that information overload results and you just don’t care enough to want to know more mundane things about a person’s life. So you don’t reach deeper when communicating.

That might not be a bad thing on the professional side of things, but when it comes to more personal relationships I find it mildly concerning (and a good reason to make a better effort with friends and other loved ones). Do you reach out enough for the people you care about, or do you let social media suffice?

I do have to say that blogs are somewhat of an exception. They do give you a chance to get to know people better, because people can be as detailed as they want. However, that’s mostly on the consumption side. Comments still are frequently brief compared to posts, limited to the scope of the post, and buried is a mass of other comments depending on the blog.

quantity of conversations
Conversations and relationship-building: quality or quantity? – Credit: BigStockPhoto.com

How Social Media Might Improve Personal Relationships

 

Now that’s not to say that I think social media is killing personal relationships really. The only ones who can do that are ourselves if we slack off and stop making a decent effort just because social media is “easier.” In fact, I do think social media can do positive things in helping to build relationships — especially new ones.

Most importantly, I think social media tools have the ability to serve as a stepping stone to deeper and more personal relationships with those we want to build them with. For example, I’d known a particular freelance writing colleague for a while. And I knew she lived just a few towns over. We got to know each other mostly through blogs, but also kept in touch occasionally through Twitter. Because of that, we later met in person a couple of times. And at that point we really took the time to get to know each other better on a more personal level — discussing family, local shops, and such rather than solely work. In that case I like to think of social media as a sort of extended introduction.

What about you? How has social media affected different types of personal relationships in your life? Does it really bring you closer just because you might stay in touch more often, or is the quantity sometimes a substitute for quality conversations in those relationships? Share your own thoughts and stories in the comments below.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Social Media works same like “Theory of Reverse” philosophy. One side we feel that we are aware and in touch with the globe and the other hand really we are becoming squeezed in our own self. The real romance is like a paper flower. Where our deep emotions are shown and expressed by cartoon blended smileys. Slowly slowly we are becoming robotics without emotions. in the words of brb, lol, gtg etc…..
    Regards

    • That might be true of some, but I think plenty of people still have a solid sense of self these days and manage offline relationships reasonably well. It comes down to being conscious of what we’re doing. And remember, just because we personally use social media, it doesn’t mean the majority of people do so actively and regularly. Maybe all of those abandoned accounts out there should inspire a bit of hope on this front — those who don’t use social media to its full potential eventually leave, and they maintain relationships in other ways. I would be surprised if more than a small percentage were so obsessive as to sacrifice relationships with those closes to them over social media’s “always connected” status. Of course, we do hear the stories so we know it happens.

  2. I have seen so much change ,from the time i was little to now.So many young people forget life outside a little game or there phone .To talk to people face to face the phone wins.This i find sad b, but at same time we get to meet wonderful and sometimes not so nice people via social networking.Some friendship i feel are real some i feel are only words on a page .I am glad and blessed at all the people who have become friends and not just words on a page to me .Use it it to help and not harm or forget those close to you and you will have found a great place to be.
    be safe walk in peace allways
    sonshine

    • You’re absolutely right. There are positive and negative elements to just about everything, and social media is no exception. I know people who are glued to their phones. I can honestly say the people close to me are nothing like that though, myself included. And seeing people find a good balance does make me sad for those who don’t seem to be able to manage it because they’re always caught up in the next big thing.

      And I agree. We should be grateful for the good relationships that do stem from social media. In my case, I’ve met some amazing colleagues from around the world who I can’t even imagine not knowing now. And those relationships began thanks to social media (although interestingly most aren’t maintained primarily that way — more through email and phone conversations for the deeper relationships).

  3. The excess of anything is bad. There are so many advantages as well as disadvantages of social media. Sadly it is not used for its vast benefits. The isolation within family is a common scene nowadays. Recently a video commercial came up named “Disconnect to Connect”. I guess that says it all.

    • I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the commercial you’re talking about. And for some that’s a sad reality. Sometimes it seems that social media is turning into just another attraction (or is that distraction) for addictive personalities. And it definitely has the potential to do harm, even if unintentionally.

  4. Yes indeed, social media is often a substitute for real life relationships. Also the time you use daily on social media could be used on forming real life relationships instead. Just imagine spending several hours a day with friends and acquaintances. Now said that the relationships online are fueled by a much more closer affinity to each other.
    Finding people who share the exact same interests in real life is hard while online it’s just a few clicks away.
    So in real life you have to socialize with people you don’t share much with but often the place you work at, where you live or other random aspects. On the contrary relationships online are based on interests. You socialize with the people who blog about the topics you are interested e.g.
    So it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Do you prefer apples (real life) or oranges (online)?

    • I’m not sure I agree about them being apples to oranges. Maybe they’re different types of apples, but both still apples.

      There is nothing stopping people from connecting offline based on interests. Shared interests are frequently what bring people together. They just have the added benefit of close proximity — being able to meet to pursue those interests together in a way that isn’t always possible online. Social media enables you to widen your net, but I find that in most cases those relationships are much shallower than real-life ones (and as I mentioned to another commenter, the exception is when those social media relationships actually expand beyond social media — phone calls, emails, and time spent face-to-face when possible).

      You do hit on an important thing though — the friends vs acquaintances issue. I can’t speak for everyone but in my own case I see a very similar breakdown between people I put in both groups, whether online or off. The real “friends” are few and far between. There are business acquaintances (and while friendly, they’re still not at the point of being “friends”). And there are people I know more casually. I think people overassociate social media relationships with friendship even when the relationships are far from at that point, and I think that’s a result of social network branding. They call your contacts things like “friends” to make you feel all warm and fuzzy and connected, when in reality most are probably in the “fan” or “someone I don’t really know but who I occasionally talk to, assuming I even know they’re alive” categories. Exceptions? Sure. But I highly doubt most people can say the majority of their social media contacts are truly “friends” (in any meaningful capacity).

  5. Interesting topic, Jenn, and one I have also thought about. I have seen family members (husband & wife) communicating to each other through Facebook. And on topics that I wonder why they don’t discuss them face-to-face (or by phone from work). Is it because it’s just a different generation’s way of communicating or something else?

    I have often thought that for all the ways to be connected, in some ways we are less connected than ever before. When I made the major move from California to Idaho, of course, I got the usual we’ll stay in touch. With all the means to do that, you’d think it would happen. Instead, messages on “walls” go unanswered and I feel thrown back to the high school days of being ignored by those I thought were my friends-LOL! πŸ˜€

    I hadn’t thought about it, but my “real” friends do stay in touch by either phone or email, and much less so (if at all) by other social media platforms. And often, those relationships can be the ones that I have the least contact with, but when we do connect, it’s like we just spoke yesterday.

    It is all very fascinating.

    • That it certainly is.

      I find that social media in that kind of relationship — spouses, b/f and g/f, etc. — can actually improve the connection. For example, my boyfriend IMs me during his lunch breaks just as I’m finishing work. There isn’t time to talk face-to-face, and it allows us to talk even while we have lunch — a bit more difficult on the phone as we’re chomping away. He follows my Twitter account to see what’s going on with me workwise throughout the day, and will often ask me about things later without me having to bring them up to him on my own. And we’ll even get involved in social gaming together occasionally if we’re otherwise bored.

      But even though we’ll have highly personal conversations this way, it’s not a substitute for deeper interactions. He’ll pick up the phone when he gets home from work. We spend our weekends together. And if we have something serious going on that we need to talk about (like a really crappy day at work) we’ll visit each other just for the sake of a hug. It’s about using newer communication tools as a supplement rather than replacement. Sometimes it’s about being connected when you need to be, even when traditional means of communication are inconvenient because of timing or location.

      The issue of moving I would guess has more to do with ambition than anything else. Staying in touch with someone who’s more distant takes more work. And people are frequently lazy. It doesn’t surprise me that people who probably wouldn’t do it via snail mail or phone calls wouldn’t do it via social media either. It’s about human nature more than tools available. You have to keep in mind that not everyone is as savvy on this front as you are — you maintain long-distance relationships with colleagues every day for example (and I can say from experience that you do so much more effectively than most of your counterparts — you’re one of the few who consistently can have deeper conversations via social media tools without having to take things out of that sphere to grow relationships).

  6. Thanks, Jenn, for the kind words. It’s nice to hear another perspective on using the tools of communication in a personal relationship. There are definitely good things that come from these alternate tools. My Mom got her first computer at 85 and through email stays in touch with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, something that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

    And you are right about the laziness factor, but don’t you still think that if you had the true friend connection in the first place, the lack of contact wouldn’t be an issue? The it’s just like we spoke yesterday feeling-that’s assuming there is SOME communication, even if infrequent.

    • Sadly we still haven’t gotten my grandmother to use email (or a computer). Not for lack of trying…. πŸ™‚

      And absolutely. Sorry if it sounded like I implied otherwise. My oldest friend (and one of my best) is someone who lives a mere 20 minutes away. We rarely talk or see each other, simply because of busy schedules. But when we do get in touch (she did last night and we agreed to get together this weekend), it’s as though we never lost contact. When I was away at school years ago it was the same way, even with longer breaks in communication and more distance between us. The laziness factor I find is more of an issue in casual relationships or frankly when people just don’t care as much as we think they do. For every one of those kindred spirit types that we’ll always feel connected to, we probably come across dozens of “friends” who would disappear after a physical separation and move on without really thinking about it. Sometimes we have good intentions, but we just get so caught up in life that we can’t feel as “connected” to everyone — especially if they’re taking on a smaller role in our lives. And I think that’s true whether or not social media enters the equation. If the relationship is solid without it, it can be a great tool to keep lines of communication open. But when those relationships aren’t quite as deep as we’d like to think, even the convenience of social media won’t save a relationship.

  7. We LOVE Social Media and have devoted our time to help others co-exist with technology and relationships, what we call “techlationships” You can find us ‘the Social Media Couple’ on Facebook! πŸ™‚ Great article BTW!

  8. I don’t think it’s exclusive to you, Jenn. I’ve seen the same thing. I’ve become fast friends with people who email me – much more so than just talking with them via Twitter or my blog.

    And I can see the flip side, too. I’ve connected to about a dozen cousins, some of whom I’ve never met, and we have bonded via Facebook. And my high school classmates? We rediscovered our friendships and built a number of new ones via Facebook.

    I guess it just depends on how you use it, eh?

    • As with everything, right? πŸ™‚

      You’ll never see me on Facebook. I can’t stand the company and how they operate on the trust front when it comes to user privacy issues and dealing with third party app developers who violate that same privacy. That said, I’ve had similar benefits in other areas — from my music PR days and connecting with locals via MySpace (pre-hideous rebranding) to professional connections on LinkedIn (old clients keep turning up there to reconnect) to family through the social networking aspects of a genealogy site I frequent. Always amazes me who you’ll come across.

  9. I would say no, I do not believe Social Media is killing our relationships. Sometimes we look for excuses, and I believe this is one of them. It’s like anything else addiction is our choice, and too much of anything can become addictive. If done in moderation, there is no harm. Too much TV, watching sports, eating too much, sleeping too much, talking too much, are just a few as there are too many to list.
    I believe social media to be a fabulous part of our lives. We meet so many people from all around the world, forming friendships and sharing thoughts for this journey of life we are all on.

    • I would argue with your assertion that addiction is someone’s choice. Addiction is anything but an active choice. You might choose to get involved in something, but you do not choose to become addicted to it. So another way to look at it is this — can addiction destroy personal relationships? The answer is undoubtedly “yes.” Various types of addiction have destroyed many relationships. There’s no question about that. You’re right that nothing in moderation will likely destroy personal relationships. But if you can acknowledge that addiction can exist in this scenario, I’m not sure how you can also conclude it wouldn’t hurt relationships. I’m not exactly a supporter of excuses. But are the tech companies trying to make people addicted? From some of the marketing I’ve seen, I would say so. And while it’s sad, that can affect relationships — but it’s not always about people trying to make excuses for themselves. Sometimes they don’t even see the problem of how much time they’re really devoting to social media, their iPhones, etc. until it’s too late and the damage is done. I certainly don’t think that applies to the majority of social users. But I think it’s a reality we have to face at the same time.

  10. Great thoughts, and something I’ve noticed/been thinking of as well. While I’ve made a few blogger friends (and you’re right, we can know more about each other because blogs can be more detailed), they’re still pretty surface-y. And when I think about how I use Facebook, I tend to use it to simply supplement my personal relationships – posting a song link my sister’s wall, or a funny note on my roommate’s. The people that I only talk to on Facebook, I’m not close to at all. I think you have it right when you say that quantity can replace quality, and the fact that social media stresses short communication so much (140 characters, limits on wall posts, etc) – the message is always brief, and usually public as well, which discourages deeply personal friendships. So while I love the fun and convenience of social media, I agree that it doesn’t work too well for really growing relationships. Like you, my boyfriend and I will sometimes chat on facebook or post on each other’s walls, but even then it usually ends with one of us just calling the other on the phone.

    Another interesting facet of this problem – do we feel closer/more connected to people simply because we follow their status and twitter updates all day? I have several Facebook “friends” that I haven’t talked to in years – but I feel like we’re still keeping up because I get all their status updates and life changes broadcast to me over my newsfeed. Yet could I really consider them “friends”? Not really!

    • I have to agree. Most blog “friends” are still pretty “surface-y” relationships as you put it. That said, some I’ve gone on to meet in person. And I’m probably in a different position than your average Joe using social media in that I run an online business. So do my colleagues. So social media outlets are like virtual water coolers and we tend to see each other around on different sites frequently. That helps when it comes to relationship-building. When we’re talking about someone who just comments on my blog, I probably won’t get to know them very well unless they’re a frequent visitor or we have mutual connections elsewhere.

      Since publishing this post, my experience with my guy has been more similar to yours. Whereas we used to talk online throughout the day, now we’re much more likely to pick up the phone or just stop by to see each other. Moving in together soon, how we’ll stay connected is less of an issue. And I imagine we’ll go back to quick online updates throughout the day and the phone will play less of a role since we know we’ll see each other shortly. Social media certainly can have its place in maintaining personal relationships. I just think it takes more balance than relying on it too heavily. It sounds like we’ve each found that balance with loved ones, and that’s a great use of these tools. πŸ™‚

  11. I think something that really matters in this discussion is the age of the user. For example, a 30-something who grew up without things like social media or cell phones is much safer from the harm that social media can cause. They already have the correct “programming” so to speak. What worries me, as a 21-year-old college kid, is what I am seeing in my peers and the younger men and women. Because the internet has been around since I was young, I have been programmed differently than my 31-year-old sister. I was chatting people on AIM when I was in fourth grade! I should have been out riding bikes and getting into trouble, which I did quite a bit – but the point remains.

    I notice kids who spend all of their free time stalking others on Facebook. People sit in class at my very expensive university and waste their time and money looking at pictures from some party they were at the night before. I have upwards of 800 friends on Facebook, but I regularly keep in touch with maybe 100 at most. I started to feel that it was taking over, so I tried an experiment. I deactivated my Facebook account. While I still spend a decent amount of time on my computer, I find myself reading the news (which I never used to do), watching documentaries, listening to music, etc. I get bored much more easily now with my computer, which forces me to do something else. I wind up going out to skateboard or going to get coffee. It forces me to call people and be active. I went to a dogpark on the other side of town yesterday afternoon just to go and see the dogs play (it is hilarious watching dogs interact).

    Truth be told, I only read this article because I had nothing else to do on my computer. Rather than look at people I don’t know’s pictures of their vacation to Barbados in 2008, I am learning about what people feel with regards to social networking.

    So, to conclude, I agree that there are ups and downs to Facebook. I am sure that my quitting the use of Facebook will most likely prove to be a hiatus rather than a divorce, but it is teaching me a lot. I don’t advocate discontinuation of social networking, I just want to raise the idea that perhaps younger kids are getting hit harder by the negative effects than are their older (but not old, of course) fellow humans. I am interested in hearing what others think about this, so please respond with feedback if you feel the urge!

    • First, 31 isn’t quite that old. We grew up with the Web too (if anything, I used it more than my now 21-year-old sister did growing up). πŸ˜‰ And I’ve seen just as many 30-somethings screw up in social media as kids. What’s tough for our group is that we were used to certain “understandings” about what we could control and not control. Now the privacy rules have changed, and over-sharing is already embedded in people’s behavior. What’s worse is that these older folks have more to lose professionally as social media is leading to a greater merger between professional and personal lives — things we used to be able to better keep separate. I’d say even older generations have similar problems of their own. They didn’t grow up with online sharing and some were resistant to the change. That leads to a greater learning curve with the potential to inadvertently share more than intended, harming their reputation among people they didn’t think would see something.

      That said, I do see one case where younger social media users have it tougher — online bullying. Maybe my friends and I were just lucky in that we didn’t have to deal with such things in the earlier days of social media, or maybe there’s just more attention paid to the issue in general now so we all hear about it. What has your experience been with regard to that? Do you or friends worry about being victimized by social media bullies? Do you know anyone who was on either side of that situation in the past? Do you think there’s a bigger risk of it now for young people, or has greater attention to the issue helped to decrease the problem from what you’ve observed?

  12. I think social networks are bad. I have a relationship that is going down because of them. She is too busy on this networks even in my presence. All of a sudden she has contacts (numbers) and they are talking non stop. I just discovered she is cheating and she does not know I am aware. She even gives nasty excuses when she wants to go see them (friends) personally. She even forgets there is not much privacy in these networks.

    • I’m not sure if it’s fair to say the social networks themselves are bad. A cheater will cheat. Sure, social media (and cell phones, email, etc.) all make it easier. But ultimately we can’t blame the tools. We have to blame the people using them for “bad” reasons.

  13. Personally… I see social networks destroying social relationships slowly. Yes it brings in new relationships and past relationships, but for the younger generation it seems to be a way for them to freely post indecent and private information or photos. I remember when I was 16, if I wanted to talk to someone, I would call them and go to their house, hang out and talk face to face. Now most the time your socialising is done through the internet or text. These forms of technology are taking the emotion out of speech and people can take the text out of context. Also the amount of bullying and put downs on sites like facebook is ridiculous… Facebook is about expressing yourself whether it’s through photos, status’s or music. Social networking has given another mode for people to continue bullying.. outside the workplace or school.

  14. Hi everyone. It is quite surprising know that social media can kill personal relation. However,, in my point of view, before having more debate on this issue, i would rather invite anyone to redefine what we call as personal relationship.
    To my understanding, personal relationship means having emotional bound between two or more people. Such relation can be build from having direct contact with one to another. Based on this definition, I would like to say that personal relation social media may not kill personal relation, but it may not allow us to have to have a good personal relation.

  15. I liked your post and your presentation of pros and cons of both sides. I use twitter just a little, my main social media is face book and thru it I have been able to expand and strengthen both friendship and acquaintances relationships and have found and been able to nurture a relationship with a lady that is going into the “I DO” phase of things. Without Face Book I would have never met her, with twitter I understand the snippet aspects that can leave you at arms length on all types of relationships, but I find thru Face Book inboxes, chats, video chats and postings, I can expand upon and strengthen relationships both close to home and those that are farther in distance… Social media can’t do it all, the in person one on one, emails, texts and such is where ultimately relationships flourish, but social media, at least Face Book for me can bridge areas to help grow and enhance relationships. I signed up to your RSS feed and am looking forward to following you… Have a great day and smiles from your new follower from the Lake they call Ackerson..

    • This is one of the most popular posts on this site, with many students using it to research whether social media is good or bad for personal relationships. For intelligent people with non-mainstream beliefs living in rural areas, the internet provides a potential way to find someone with whom to start an offline relationship. As Bill Ong mentions, it can lead to any type of relationship if you expand it offline.

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