2013-11-20

Social Connectivity

I'm surely not the first person to observe it, but there seems to be something happening to human social relationships, and it is not a particularly good thing.

I'll explain what I seem to be observing in society at large, and from there, the reader can determine to what degree you might have also observed it, and to what extent you might agree with me about where it comes from.

Social relationships in today's world seem to be deteriorating rapidly. It's difficult to get people to really connect with what other people are saying. It seems to involve a combination of self-absorbedness and short attention spans (otherwise known as a short cognitive time-horizon). I will illustrate with a few examples.

If you're active on Google+ and interested in music, then you may have joined one of the many musicians' communities. Having done so, you must have almost certainly observed that these communities mostly consist of musicians simply posting links to their music. On a few occasions, I have attempted to participate in the community aspect of these pages. That is, I'll listen to some of the music and provide accolades and constructive criticism. I always say only positive thing when I do this, because my goal is not to really critique the music so much as foster a community spirit. In all cases of my doing this, the musician has responded by thanking me for listening and asking me to share the link with others.

Let me explain why this bothers me. First, my goal in reaching out to the musician is to make some sort of personal connection. It doesn't have to be touchy-feely, but the fact of the matter is that I did them the courtesy of listening to their music and providing a favorable reaction to it. I expect some sort of personal comment. It might be an anecdote about the composition of a song. It might be that the musician seeks out my music and chooses to respond in kind. Basically, I'm looking for any response other than a vapid "thank you, please advertise for me." I did not volunteer to be part of someone's viral ad campaign, I reached out to communicate with someone. So, communicate.

Similarly, I try to respond to all the comments I receive on this blog because I assume that in reaching out to me, you are looking for reciprocal communication. I really appreciate the fact that people take the time to read my blog, and I especially appreciate that some would take time out of their day to provide comments of their own. I don't want that comment to just go into the void. I am not here to just preach my own thoughts and ignore all other human beings. So, I try to comment when I can.

(Note: I have received a few very long comments, and I still owe those comments a response!)

In social situations, I am finding that, more and more, people are interested in speaking only about themselves and their own experiences. We all like to talk about ourselves, but that is not really how conversation is supposed to occur. We only talk about ourselves in order to find a topic that can be shared with others. I might choose to start talking about running, but my goal is not to tell everyone about the last run I went on. My goal is to provide fodder for conversation, and especially to hear what other people have to say. And then, to respond to what new things they bring to the conversation, so that they, too, can respond to what I've said. And so on.

Professional situations are now dominated by a ubiquitous sense of self-advertisement. We all need to have a CV. We all need to have an "elevator pitch." We all seek "face time" with the senior executive. When interacting with clients, we are always putting the company's best face forward. When things go wrong, we put a positive spin on them. When things get worse, we seek to avoid blame rather than address the problem. The undercurrent in all of this is the idea that we are at center stage, massaging the message to make us look as good as possible.

To a certain extent, there is nothing wrong with putting your best face forward, of course. But when doing so supersedes all other aspects of business - when self-promotion becomes the means by which a person decides to achieve professional "success" - then we've lost a real personal connection to our work. Not only does that make the work itself meaningless for us, it also breaks down our ability to engage in effective teamwork. It is a big, all-or-nothing gamble with clients to "fake it until you make it," or to bluff long enough to get through the project timeline. One false move, and it's all over.

In light of all of this, I've decided to make a commitment to reducing my social media presence and instead seek out real and meaningful interpersonal relationships, fostered face-to-face, in flesh and blood, involving eye-contact and facial expressions. All that scary stuff. I'm not a gregarious person, but nonetheless I refuse to exist in a vapid world of self-absorption. I recommend you do the same.