Op-Ed: What It Really Means to Communicate

By: Kelly Chen / April 17th, 2016

When people hear the word “communication”, most of them will probably think of talking. But with the growth of the percentage of American adults that use social media from 18% to 75% in the United States within the last ten years, it is fair to say that communication is no longer limited merely to face-to-face conversation. Often seen as a positive addition to the modern-day lifestyle, social media has expanded to touch on nearly every aspect of American society. The current generation of teens has grown up using tablets, phones, the internet, and hundreds of other technological innovations that have essentially transformed the modern world. These changes have been both positive and negative and have affected everything from the professional workplace, pop culture, to personal life. But perhaps one of the most contested impacts has been the profound changes social media has had on our communication skills. It’s impossible to deny the effects it has had on our ability to connect. Social media has caused a decline in our ability to communicate well by increasing potential miscommunication, encouraging laziness, and causing a rise in narcissism.

What Does That Text Mean?

Miscommunication is single-handedly one of the biggest weaknesses of social media. Whether it is through misinterpretation of a message or emotion, or even just an ambiguous explanation, trying to connect in any way online presents the possibility for error simply because of how impersonal it can be. According to studies sourced by Forbes, online interaction eliminates 93% of the context used in a regular conversation, including body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone. Only 7% of communication is based upon verbal word, which is oftentimes, the only way to converse through social media. However, as humans, many of us depend upon those social cues to better analyze a situation and form a proper response. Without these signals, people are more likely to misinterpret a situation, turning an innocent text into a cause of guilt, anger, and uncertainty. For instance, as someone who frequently utilizes sarcasm, it’s hard to find a way to send texts that don’t convey the wrong tone. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times that I’ve sent a witty, sarcastic message only to have a friend completely miss the point, taking me literally.

But it’s easy to see where all of this confusion stems from. According to  “The Period is Pissed”, an article describing the difficulties of using punctuation to express emotion, the mechanics of writing, specifically punctuation, classically formed as a way to structure prose “according to its own unique hierarchy and logic”, not necessarily to convey emotion. In fact, Keith Houston, an author that writes about punctuation and typology cited within the aforementioned article, explains in his novel, Shady Characters, that “explicit representations of the emotional state of the person doing the writing” are uncommon.

It makes sense. Writing, historically, was developed to record important information for individual civilizations, not for conversation. But with the growth of social media, users have bent writing to fit their needs. They have made new uses for punctuation, have created emojis, and have utilized other newfangled methods to replace the handicaps presented with a keyboard. Though many may argue that these developments are sufficient substitutes for body language and facial expressions, the ambiguity of the symbols still cause confusion. “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” an article published by The New York Times details the importance of facial expression and how social media strips that ability from humans. The article describes how emojis are, at best, a weak, “faceless imitation of a true facial expression,” and thus, cannot replace one’s true countenance or body language. “The Period is Pissed” also explains how the period’s use, or lack of thereof, is often interpreted by receivers in a wide variety of ways, resulting in unclear communication. There is no “proper” way to use punctuation to express emotion, and as such, attempting to do so results in confusing online conversations.

Lazy Emotions

Social media is easy and convenient. Nearly every person owns some sort of mobile smartphone with the capability to connect to the internet. With platforms such as Instagram or Twitter releasing mobile apps, your friends are literally a click away. It is because of this that it is simple to see why the use of social media has grown so quickly. The percentage of users has risen over 50% in the last ten years, but has done so at the cost of our relationships.

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There is nothing wrong with using social media. But when it begins to hinder real life relationships and personal experiences, significant issues can arise in how genuine communication may be. Humans are, by nature, unpredictable when it comes to emotions, resulting in messy conversations and situations. Social media, however, gives users a greater degree of control over their feelings. This has allowed people to avoid dealing with these emotions, causing greater miscommunication and poorer relationships. A 2013 survey conducted by VitalSmarts found that about 81% of people asked said that emotional conversations held on social media were often left unresolved. On top of this, the same survey found that 1 in 5 people reduced in-person contact with someone over an online argument. In many these conflicts, people decided to use technology as a means to discuss their issues. And when it ended badly, they simply may have avoided each other in real life.

This is furthermore supported by Sherry Turkle’s TEDTalk, “Connected, But Alone,” in which she talks of the detrimental effects of technology. She notes, “…We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy… We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.” She goes on to explain how people are growing lazy, possibly scared of the greater immediate repercussions of emotional arguments. Because of this, people then use social media to distance themselves from each other to “comfortably control” the connection. The result is not only harming our relationships but also our own abilities to effectively communicate.

The Dawn of Oversharing

Social media has caused widespread superficiality within the general public, harming our ability to communicate. It’s the dawn of oversharing and its worst effect, selfishness. Social media’s constant call to connect, to inform, and to share, leads to a gush of personal posts. It’s all about me, myself, and I, not about others. While inherently an innocent action, this constant sharing can have judgmental and self-centered motives, leading to increasing narcissism. This personality disorder can have hugely negative impacts on social relationships.

Narcissists generally disregard the opinions of others, endlessly boasting of their own accomplishments, qualities, and traits. And while they appear cool and confident, the truth is that the root of the disorder is insecurity.  This insecurity causes a narcissist to be extremely jealous, sensitive of criticism, and unable to accept his or her own flaws. These personality traits are often seen as undesirable, leading to strained, often superficial relationships. But in the online world, social media only exists to worsen the disorder. A study conducted in 2014 and published in Computers in Human Behavior by Department of Social Psychology at the University of Duisberg-Essen found that online, narcissists tended to post about themselves frequently in order to attract likes and comments that would “fuel their beliefs about self-importance.” Social media, made to allow people to share information about themselves to a large audience, only encourages narcissistic behavior and may cause more cases of the disorder. By providing a platform for people to tout their accomplishments and best qualities, social media may cause people to develop higher amounts of narcissism. This is supported by a study conducted by York University over Facebook users ages 18-25, in which a correlation was found that determined that the most frequent users of Facebook tended to have more narcissistic or insecure personalities.

However, many may argue that social media can instead be used to raise positive self-image through documentation, positive response, and acceptance. Social media can indeed be used to help validate self-worth and improve confidence. In fact, in the Ideal to Real TODAY/AOL Body Image survey, they found that 65% of female teens surveyed felt that seeing their selfies online “boosts their confidence.” But even so, the same source found that 55% of surveyed girls said felt that social media made them more self-conscious while 58% said that seeing others’ glamorous lives caused low self-esteem. This shows that social media, when abused, can cause crippling effects to a person’s self-esteem, especially those that do not already have strong self-esteem. And with insecurity as the root of narcissism, using social media can trigger the disorder, resulting in a decline in one’s ability to communicate.

Conclusion

Social media isn’t inherently bad. It’s actually incredible what society has done to create these new platforms and technologies. But its effects on potential miscommunication, encouraging laziness, and narcissism have made it necessary that people learn to control the degree to which social media is utilized to form connections. If we allow technology to completely take over our lives, we will face the consequences, big and small, of our actions. It’s important that we begin to re-embrace our abilities to converse face-to-face so that we can nurse our communication skills to our full potential. If we don’t, the issues will extend far beyond what I have outlined.

Humans are social animals. We grow up teaching the young, loving each other, and speaking. But in the end, what are we if we can’t even talk?


Seventh Sense costume pose

Kelly Chen is currently a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Her favorite part of the writing process is editing. In her nonexistent free time, she reads a lot and attempts to learn how to do hip-hop from YouTube videos. She is only occasionally successful.

Disclaimer: This was written for my high school English class. We were required to publish our Op-Eds online. Unfortunately, this is not indicative of a return to regular blogging.

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2 comments

  1. Wonderful discussion – since book blogging and social media tends to go hand and hand, it is good to address some of the issues with social media and identify the problems we face. I hope that we are able to grow, learn and adapt with this newfound communication, since it is still in the early stages of development, if you look at humanity and evolution as a whole. We might see a reversion back to the old ways of communication, when the “social media” bubble pops, or deflates.

    Liked by 1 person

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