Enhanced Communication:

Are we hiding behind a digital facade or is social media improving our personal interactions?

students on the quad

In this year’s Oscar-winning Her, the film’s main character Theodore Twombly falls in love with well… not a person. Rather, he has a romantic relationship with his computer operating system, “Samantha.”

As it offers an eerie take on our ongoing hyper-attachment to devices intended to help us connect with well … other people, the movie begs the question: “Are we, like Twombly, becoming more isolated hiding behind all of that new technology?”

According to Sacramento State Sociology Professor Todd Migliaccio, the answer is, “No.”

Hmmm... or perhaps maybe?

Migliaccio contends people use technology and the Internet to interact with others online just as much as they do offline. “They use online social networking to extend social relationships that exist offline,” says Migliaccio, who teaches about the influence of the Internet and popular culture on society.

However, isolated users will likely continue to be so, despite communication advances.

“People who have few relationships offline try to enhance their online interactions, but they still struggle,” Migliaccio says. “They have greater knowledge about technology. But they still are limited socially.”

 Our technological connections create “pseudo-intimacy” between people, he says. And gaps in communication are filled in with our own perceptions and interpretations.

Such as when we text, Migliaccio says. “Texting limits our personal interactions. But it allows us regular interactions, so contact persists.”

Communication Studies Professor Diego Bonilla takes Migliaccio’s stance a step further. He contends communication technologies don’t necessarily help or hurt our social interactions, but rather extend who we already are offline.

In the early days of the Internet, theorists propounded it was an “identity laboratory” where people could “reinvent themselves” to experience different identities. But that theory isn’t proving to be the case. 

“New research is showing that identity construction is more about extending the true self,” says Bonilla.

Whether this is good or bad for us, the jury is still out.

“It is not that the medium is positive or negative,” he says. “It’s what humans do with it.

“It’s almost like having a bionic arm. (It’s bad) if I use it to hit you in the face.” Bonilla says.

And, he concedes, that “arm” is getting longer.

“Internet communications are making us extend ourselves to a realm that we didn’t have before,” he says.

Throughout history, society has never experienced such a rapid increase in communications technology, explains Scott Lupo, a Sac State lecturer on the history of the United States.

Lupo says today’s advances like online connectivity are inspiring excitement similar to the advents of past communication inventions, but on an entirely new level.

“While there were significant developments before, today’s new innovations, particularly within the realm of social media, can seem outdated within just a few years or even months,” Lupo says. “The cumulative effect is to create a sense of constant change, which can seem exciting and disorienting at the same time.”

One area that has jumped into the new forms of communication delivery is in group interaction.

Bonilla and Migliaccio both see evidence that suggests people make connections on Facebook groups and others sites that they wouldn’t otherwise make.

“One of the areas that the Internet has really risen to in terms of utility is among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth,” says Migliaccio, adding that before the Internet, many segments of the population didn’t have any way to connect.

Migliaccio explains that  the specialized interaction online can increase one’s connectivity to a group.

But when it comes to groups formed not by shared interest but by bloodlines, the perception that video chat programs like Skype and Facetime are bringing families closer together may be an illusion.

“We think we are closer to people, even though we are not truly there,” Migliaccio says. It allows “continuing access, albeit limited.”

This is especially true for ‘neolocal’ families, who live away from immediate relatives, by need or by choice. But, he notes, while it isn’t ideal, video conferencing is better than just emails or texts that create ambiguity.

Which bring us back to the uncertainty of Mr. Twombly.

So what does the future hold for him and the rest of us who increasingly tether ourselves to our smart phones, laptops, tablets and now, possibly sooner than later, smart watches?

Listening to Lupo, the answer may lie in understanding our past while quickly cutting back to reality.

Lupo suggests all of these rapid advances are embedded in our country’s 200-year history of characterizing the United States’ success by its innovations. Individually harnessing that ‘success’ may be key.

“The pace of change and the technologies associated with it, almost make daily life seem ‘unreal,’ which is in a sense at the heart of what could be called the ‘postmodern’ experience.”

Want more on the upsides and downsides of social media? Two Sac State professors weigh in on how social media is affecting students' ability to write.