Tiffany Jenkins: Why ‘social’ networking is driving us further apart

Mobile customers prefer text or e-mail communication. Picture: Uli Seit
Mobile customers prefer text or e-mail communication. Picture: Uli Seit
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FIGURES show a drop in the number of mobile phone calls, but there’s a human cost to pay, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleebs and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

This shift is worth reflecting on. The fall comes despite the fact that the average cost of making a mobile call is less than is used to be.

Common explanations point the finger at improvements in technology. “New technology has fundamentally changed the way that we communicate, says James Thickett, Ofcom’s director of research, arguing that the drop in calls was brought about by a “rapid increase in ownership of internet-connected devices”.

And yes, there has been a wonderful expansion of ways to reach out and make connections all over the globe. The number of smartphones in use worldwide has topped 1 billion, according to new figures released this week by Strategy Analytics.

Although these changes are important, solely crediting developments in technology as the explanation has limitations. After all, many of these devices remain telephones so why are we not using them as telephones?

Another explanation is that we are all too busy. But, despite the perception that our frenetic lives means we choose to press send rather that pick up the phone, it’s not more convenient, nor does it take less time.

With a call a problem raised can be resolved on the spot, a diary date confirmed at once. By e-mail; confusion is created as people don’t answer questions, or they skim read and miss the point when they finally answer. Overall, it takes more time and effort to communicate electronically.

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone.

What about teenagers? I hear you ask. After all, they are notorious for spending all evening hanging on the telephone.

In fact, the shift away from voice is led by teenagers and young adults. Ofcom reports that 96 percent of 16-24-year olds use “some form of text-based application” each day to communicate with friends and family instead of speech based technology.

Technological developments do not take place in a vacuum. For the young who have grown up overprotected and shielded from the world, online is the one place they have a small modicum of freedom.

So it is of little surprise that they are most comfortable online. This is a space where their parents and teachers cannot enter nor listen in.

Those that worry about technology and the erosion of privacy should consider if this space is also where the young may try to create their own private territory.

As for the adult world, this connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.