It started as a marketing gimmick. In 2000, Mitch Maddox, also known as DotComGuy, holed himself up in a Dallas townhouse for a year, relying on visitors and his Internet connection to interact with the outside world. At the time, it was a novelty to be plugged in 24 hours a day, visiting chat rooms, making purchases online and having every moment captured on streaming video for the rest of the world to see.
For Maddox, being continuously wired was a stunt, devised to promote electronic commerce. Now, it is a way of life. Although we may not physically shut ourselves in as DotComGuy did, we often live in our own bubbles, simultaneously reaching out and closing ourselves off to others through the use of technology. At business meetings, we pay partial attention while responding to e-mails. When we are with our friends, we will stop to send text messages and Twitter updates. While we are connected, we are rarely fully engaged with those immediately around us.
"It's almost like I experienced what a lot of people maybe are experiencing now, only I experienced it 12 years ago," Maddox says in a phone interview from his home in Dallas, explaining that his year of wired living forced him to be constantly "on" for all his Internet followers.
Our obsession with smart devices and social media seems alarming. As U.S. psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, wrote in The New York Times last year, "we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection." With 2011 census data showing more Canadians living alone than in couple households with children for the first time, it would be easy to assume that people are becoming more alienated than ever. But technology's impact on our social lives may not be as detrimental, or as powerful, as we might think.
In a 2011 study, Cornell University researcher Matthew Brashears examined national U.S. survey results that indicated a considerable decline in the number of people Americans consider close friends. Data from the General Social Survey, which offers a glimpse into the social environments of the average American, showed that respondents in 2004 had confided in roughly two friends on matters they considered important to them during the previous six months. This, Brashears noted, was down from an average of three friends in 1985.
More strikingly, the proportion of Americans who were socially isolated – those who discussed important matters with no one – had surged to 23 per cent from 8 per cent over the same period.
Brashears points out, however, that the social survey results should be taken with a grain of salt. First, the proportion of people who report having no discussions of important matters fluctuates wildly from year to year, and a sizable fraction of them may simply feel they have no important matters to discuss.
Another interpretation, he says, is that people's social networks are not necessarily shrinking; rather, they may be changing how they define their friends. "What I suspect is happening is that we're seeing a reallocation of all your associates into different categories," he said in an interview. "So fewer people are being considered as discussion partners, but maybe more of them are people you would spend time with."
In fact, recent research suggests that social media and modern communications technologies have either no effect, or a slightly positive effective, on people's face-to-face relationships and social circles, Brashears says. "So if you use Facebook and you use all this stuff, you may have slightly more friends than you might have otherwise."
Technology's bad rap can be partly attributed to how quickly it has become a fixture in our lives, Brashears suggests. Consider that Facebook came into general use only in 2006, the same year Twitter's early prototype was created. And although early research indicated that people who were highly plugged into the Internet had smaller social circles, those studies were conducted in the 1990s when the Internet was the domain of a relatively small group of early adapters.
But plugging in does not appear to help us make friends either. In a study released last year, University of Waterloo postdoctoral researcher Amanda Forest found that individuals who have low self-esteem were more likely to consider Facebook a safe place to express themselves and engage with others, without the awkwardness of face-to-face interaction. Yet they also were more likely to be downers online, posting updates that exhibited sadness, anger, fear and anxiety instead of more positive emotions. Forest found that coders who were asked to assess their Facebook messages found people with low self-esteem less likeable than those with high self-esteem on the basis of their status updates.
"The same people who are more negative in person seem to be the ones who are more negative on Facebook," Forest says, suggesting that the way we act online is more or less an extension of how we act in person. Even though we try to portray ourselves a certain way on social-media sites, we do this to some extent in real life as well, she says.
Back in Dallas, Maddox says his early immersion in electronic communications has caused him to moderate his use of mobile devices and social media. After leaving the office each evening, the software company employee and self-proclaimed technology junkie avoids checking e-mail on his iPhone. And even though he appreciates social-media sites, he does not check them every day. He says he logs onto Facebook only once every four months.
"I think it's great," he says, "but I had my year of that and it was just so much that I just kind of set those boundaries for myself."