Are social networks killing social lives?

I attended the first of the CIPR’s Social Summer series on Thursday, entitled ‘How to get ahead in social. How to build your online reputation’ given by Stephen Waddington, MD at Speed Communications. Timely really, as I’ve just started this blog and starting out in PR means I’m getting to grips with managing reputations and more interestingly, online reputations. After all, someone’s first point of reference normally is to ‘google it’, and so what happens when someone google’s you?

The talk itself was interesting, and Stephen covered a number of useful online tools such as Twitter, Linkedin and About.me, all of which feature highly on Google search pages and can be controlled by you to build your online reputation. However, what stuck me was the comment: “At talks, the audience are not interested in the speaker as they are all busy following the conversation on Twitter.” I always tweet at talks and follow hashtags because I’m intrigued to know what others in the audience think of the speaker. But why don’t I just turn to the person next to me and ask? Surely striking up a conversation would be easier? This has led me to think about whether social networks have been impairing people’s abilities to hold a conversation face-to-face, and this comment really struck a chord, namely as he was right, I was more interested in Twitter at some points as opposed to the content of the presentation.

There are some that argue technology is having an adverse effect on human interaction and I agree to some extent. I find myself hiding behind the screen of my smartphone or the screen of my laptop should I not wish to engage in conversation with someone. It provides a wanted distraction to communicate with other people rather than confront what’s before you in the physical realm. Dangerous this may be, it’s more and more common, and I find myself pushing for no phones/laptops in meetings to ensure face-to-face communication is as meaningful as possible.

Speaking to a colleague on the way out, I was very interested to hear him say ‘the days of long lunches with clients has long gone in PR’. Coming into the industry during/post recession, I have to say wining and dining of journalists and clients doesn’t happen. Either they don’t have the time or there are no funds to do so, and thus face-to-face contact is in decline. However, social networks such as Linkedin and Twitter make is possible to create an ongoing dialogue that is so needed in certain cases where you want to build trust and a relationship with someone you might not have the chance to meet. I often find myself tweeting journalists, bloggers and speakers as I don’t have the opportunity to meet them in person. And for that reason I am of the opinion that whilst human interaction is suffering to a degree, the benefits that social networks bring, such as a larger pool of people to ‘talk’ to and the opportunity to develop a continual conversation vastly outweigh the drawbacks. Also, turning to another person in the audience would generally require smalltalk and niceties that hashtags eliminate. Social networks provide cut through, as you can find out exactly what you want to know, as people say exactly what’s on their mind. After all, that is what Facebook asks you before you type in a new status.

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