Social Media can Bring People Together or Tear Them Apart

Social media has become a routine activity for many people across the globe. Some people check their preferred networks daily or weekly while others might even check in multiple times a day.

Regardless of level of use, people have become accustomed to social media, and many often use it as a preferred form of communication. It is not uncommon for people today to learn of important news, such as engagements, births, and deaths, on social media. People also use it as a preferred form for sending invitations to family and friends as well. 

With over a billion active monthly users just on Facebook alone (as of June 2014), the importance placed on online social environments is clear in today's world. There are few aspects in life not able to be integrated with social media nowadays. It is a fast and effective way to share information, especially now that networks are also integrated with mobile.

Mobile apps
Credit: Jason A. Howie at Flickr/Creative Commons-Attribution

While social media, at its core, is built around the idea of socialization and connectivity, it has also had a dynamic effect on how people communicate with one another. On one level it brings people closer, however, does it also distance people?

Whatever your perspective, social media has had an impact on interpersonal communication. Perhaps in some ways for the better, some for the worse.

Brings People Together

Social media networks advertises themselves as a way for people to connect. And they can do it very easily. How many people have reconnected with family members, old friends or classmates through finding them on any given network? In this sense, relationships can be renewed or new ones created. People that would never have otherwise talked to each other, for instance due to differences in time zones, can now communicate as frequently as they'd like. In this respect social media is very beneficial. People who might not have previously connected now routinely are able to stay in contact with one another.

Does Social Media Lead to Disconnect?

While people can be brought closer, on the flip side, can social media also tear relationships further apart? On one hand, people can rapidly respond to one another in real time. On the other, how deep are these conversations? Is the communication more superficial with social media as the intermediary between two or more people? Or does it contain the same level of intimacy it would have in days past?

Social media can perhaps be likened to a telephone conversation — almost. But there are two major differences, the connotations that come with voice are absent and conversations are typically not private. Susan Tardanico, CEO of the Authentic Leadership Alliance (courtesy Forbes), considers the idea that social media sabotages real communication.

"Studies show that only 7 percent of communication is based on the written or verbal word. A whopping 93 percent is based on nonverbal body language," Tardanico writes.

Without voice nuances, messages can be easily misconstrued and, ultimately, have an effect on a relationship if a misunderstanding were to occur. Tardanico points out people can hide behind electronic forms of communication, such as Facebook posts, Tweets, emails and texts - even emoticons. As a result, the people who are talking may not truly know what is going on in the other person's life, making an important part of communication lacking.

Leading to the question, how in-depth can people really get online when conversing? And, if this form of communication takes precedence over other forms, can (or will) relationships become distanced over time?

Quality vs. Quantity

With communication being publicly shared, the question of quality vs. quantity also arises. Sure, people talk to one another every day online, but is the quality of communication aligned with the type associated with close relationships? 

Over time the interpersonal communication that has traditionally occurred between people could theoretically disintegrate, being overcome by quick messages and conversations that are on a superficial level. Will these communications on social media be valued, or even remembered?

Not to mention the privacy factor. Not all people are willing share thoughts/feelings/ideas online, but they might also use these websites as their primary way to communicate. After a while, true sharing can also begin to disappear.

Although, while over a billion people use social media, there is a population that refuses to engage on it. An April 2013 Cornell study highlighted reasons some people quit or refused to join Facebook. The holdouts said they did not want to display or live in a "global aquarium".

With the brevity that exists in social media messages, either sent publicly or privately, do those individuals polled have a point?

Swimming in an aquarium
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Swimming in an aquarium

Depth of Relationships

Although the various networks offer a distinct way for people to communicate, they could potentially impact the depth of relationships if people aren't careful. For instance, if quality were to be replaced by quantity of the communication taking place in relationships, this could lead to a loss of close connections to family and friends.

Does the human element get lost between the messages? It could. But does it have to?

If people remain aware of this possibility and make an effort to maintain human contact with one another, in addition to the electronic methods of talking, online networks could very well enhance a relationship rather than distance it.

Electronic communications have had a significant impact on various aspects of life, including both personal and business relationships. It is important to remember that communication is a two-way street. Sending a message to everyone on an online network is not the same thing as engaging in interpersonal communication. In order for communication to succeed there has to be ongoing dialogue that contains a level of familiarity and/or intimacy.

People who can recognize the importance of talking offline and effectively maintain the two-way street can enjoy the benefits of social networks without losing true interpersonal communication. However, there may also be those that end up stuck in the "global aquarium" if they aren't careful.

[ Related reading: How the Internet Changed the World ]