The debate over whether social media is a positive or negative influence is a hot topic these days. On one side of the spectrum, one might argue that it allows us to connect to (and with) a vast number of people over thousands of miles away from each other, which would not have been possible without our current level of technology. The other side states that these ‘connections’ that we make virtually lack a certain intimacy that is generally needed for true connection. Both sides are valid and are true to an extent. However, it is important to realize it is not about the connection itself, but the intent behind the connection.
In a way, it comes down to the “quantity versus quality” debate. Sure, we can virtually connect with more people, but what is our intent behind that connection? Is the goal to reach a large number of people virtually and then follow those connections up with real-world content involving face to face meetings that we intend to continue long term? Is it more that we are looking to hide behind a screen in relative safety while we express strong opinions and condemn others for their own personal views? Or, are we looking to connect with like-minded individuals with whom we would never have found without social media, because the people similar to us happen to live farther away?
In connecting with people in general, it is important to also look at the ‘why’ of our behaviors. Although we can’t always choose our family, we can choose our friends, our colleagues, and our intimate partners. And, we can choose the type of relationships we want to have with each person. Through many of these connections, we do connect virtually, but we connect in person as well. This allows us to interpret body language, attitudes, and eye contact that we can then use to determine the mood and demeanor of the person we are talking to. For virtual connections, we can use emoticons to communicate our feelings in a similar manner.
I think it is helpful when we have more of a “blended” connection with someone – that is, when we have met someone in person and have been able to interact on a more personal level, but maybe they just do not live in our geographical area. Or, maybe they live in the same area but we also are connecting virtually through a social group. I think the connection problem really comes into play when we are interacting completely virtual. This is because we haven’t established any kind of an emotional connection with them; they are literally a picture, or a graphic. We do not know what emotions they feel, what their hopes are, or what their dreams are – we only know their thoughts based on the typed message that they send.
This is problematic because of the lack of true connection through emotion. It allows us to speak our truths and opinions, but we are not being curious about how other people have arrived at theirs – we connect to change minds instead of connecting to better understand other people, and the world around us. People are individual, which I think is a good thing – because, how dull would it be if we were all exactly the same, expressing the exact same opinion? What would be the point of connecting at all? Exploring our differences is one of the best ways to connect, because we learn things we never knew before, including perhaps a new perspective that without the other person’s take on something, we never would have thought to question.
I think social media is very useful, but I also think we need to be mindful of the ways in which we are using it. We set intentions all the time – we intend to get up every morning, we intend to eat breakfast, we intend to go to work – why not also set some intentions around social media? By having emotion at the forefront of all communications, we can add value to our social media connections. Make the intent to respect all interactions, virtual or otherwise. Strive to truly understand the person on the other end of the computer. Challenge their thinking, yes – but allow them to challenge yours. Connection is a two way street whether it is virtual or in person. It is not a one-sided interaction, so connect with intent.