Upon introducing himself, third-year economics major Dao Ho usually gets the same response from every new friend he makes: “Why and how do you not have a Facebook?” He can’t receive event invites online or comment on the funny pictures everyone is talking about. However, Ho says that not having the social media platform makes him feel more in touch, rather than out of touch, with others.
Has our culture become so dependent on technology that face-to-face communication (FTF) seems to be the last resort behind sending a text or an email or using video chat? These mediums of communication that require technology fit into the category of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and may impact our ability to communicate in person normally.
Computer-mediated communication can be understood as interpersonal communication where two or more individuals interact with each other using computers.
Professor Catherine Puckering, a communication lecturer at UC Davis, says that CMC and FTF are often viewed to be at odds, and many people tend to believe that using CMC may result in lower usage of FTF.
“Social Information Processing Theory [created by Joseph Walther] tries to compare developing a relationship face-to-face versus developing a relationship online,” Puckering said. “[Walther] posited that people who communicate online — [such as with] email, online chat … text-based environment — had a much more positive view than his peers in the communication discipline.”
However, it is noted that communicating through text-based communication takes much longer than in-person, face-to-face communication.
“Text-based conversations take four times longer than a face-to-face conversation, so 15 minutes of face-to-face takes an hour of text-based communication,” Puckering said.
No nonverbal cues with CMC
“[With CMC] I can’t see your facial expressions, I can’t hear your voice, I can’t see your body posture, and so I miss a lot of the nuances of maybe who you are and maybe what it is you’re trying to communicate to me,” Puckering said.
Video streaming applications, such as Facetime or Skype, may communicate nonverbal cues better than text, but they’re still CMC.
“[Facetiming may be] more reliable than texting but … there’s still something about being able to see someone’s complete body language, and just being physically present — [and] it’s easier to get distracted because you can turn them off,” said Grace Scott, a first-year biological sciences major and frequent user of an iPhone and MacBook.
One way modern technology has become more personal to make up for the lack of nonverbal cues is through emoticons, or the Emoji language on the iPhone.
“The Emoji helps … communicate sarcasm, moods and joking so you can get an overall sense of my mood,” Puckering said.
Despite all those winky faces and colored hearts you can text through Emoji, communication experts like Puckering still agree that it is not the same — or as rich a medium — as a basic in-person conversation.
Emoticons can sometimes also be interpreted with the wrong tone. Scott feels that sometimes using too many emoticons is worse than using none.
“I think it’s just one of those things where I categorize [an emoticon] with an annoying laugh, as if after every time someone says something, there’s an annoying laugh,” she said.
Breeding self-doubt in the classroom
Katherine Grasso, a second-year communication graduate student, has witnessed a definite change in face-to-face communication due to students’ dependence on computer-mediated communication.
“It scares me … noticing college-age students being really reluctant and unable to speak up in class to give a synopsis of what they read (if they read) and form a critical opinion about [it],” Grasso said.
Not participating in class may be a sign that our minded generation can no longer speak confidently in face-to-face situations.
“It scares me that it might become the norm for people … I think that will have detrimental effects on people’s ability to communicate,” Grasso said. “I think that practice makes perfect and nobody has to practice anymore.”
Technocultural studies professor Jesse Drew, who currently teaches Media Archaeology (TCS 5), agrees that technology contributes to weaker social skills.
“Heavy users of technology [tend to] lack certain social graces [and] they confuse formal interaction with informal interaction,” Drew said. “People who are used to texting [and using] Facebook … are way too informal, and it can often be disrespectful.”
Not being able to distinguish formal communication manners can often impact students’ academic opportunities also.
“If students lose that [oratory] skill or don’t develop it, I think that’s going to have a negative impact on them,” Drew said.
This lack of confidence or communication can potentially damage a student’s promise of landing a job when it comes to an interview.
“For some people it will have detrimental effects, because you see that now when people don’t know it’s inappropriate to put their phone on the table at a meal with friends. You’re supposed to be present, and I think if somebody did that at a job interview they wouldn’t be called back,” Grasso said.
Boon to the shy, detriment to the easily-distracted
“For some people [CMC is] actually very good and allows them to develop relationships they might not have been able to develop any other kind of way,” Puckering said.
Texting, emailing and online chatting can aid shy or anxious personalities into becoming more social — despite it being mediated. But this positive effect of CMC is paired with the negative effect of giving individuals more distractions.
Depending highly on technology to communicate can mean spending less time in the present for in-person interactions.
As smartphone users commonly browse social media or check emails, they are more likely to be distracted while in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. Multi-tasking face-to-face communication and computer-mediated communication require paying only half of one’s attention to each in order to do both simultaneously.
Scott believes that this bad habit of distraction due to CMC does not necessarily mean that those phone-obsessed individuals will lose the ability to converse normally face-to-face — it’s a matter of choice.
“I think they’re definitely able to communicate face-to-face, there’s just a lack of will. I think they’re able to if they put their phone away,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, Facebook-less Dao Ho continues to be teased
It’s true: Ho will not “like” the latest Justin Bieber status. He will not post pictures of his breakfast at IHOP and check the comments in the late hours of the morning. He will miss out on many facets of the computer age.
But unlike so many others, he will rest assured knowing that when in the presence of another human being, he can communicate free of distractions and not find himself oddly enough — just 3 feet apart — inexplicably disconnected.
ALYSSA KUHLMAN can be reached at email@example.com.