On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy
Social Bonding Over Distance: Sociomental Activity Trumps Face-to-Face Interaction
During a time of concern over technologically-mediated interaction supplanting face-to-face interaction and how technologically-mediated interaction might negatively impact social connections, Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age by Mary Chayko, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Chair of Sociology at the College of St. Elizabeth, is heresy… and I like it! Having only mentioned her work in this post, I’ll now expound upon the following conclusions drawn from interviews with “low-tech” and “high-tech” participants:
(1) Sociomental bonding which I would describe as cognitive effort spent keeping individuals present in your mind, instead of face-to-face interaction, is the actual basis of social bond formation, and
(2) Concern about people “losing out” by incorporating more technologically-mediated communication methods into their lives, thereby reducing their degree of engagement in natural, face-to-face communication, is overdone.
First and foremost, Chayko asserts that connecting with people across time and distance is an ordinary human experience. People are naturally wired to form relationships through various methods aside from face-to-face interaction. Throughout our history, going through periods of not physically seeing important individuals in our lives on a daily basis is a usual practice. Somehow, we maintain a connection to these individuals during their absence.This is cognitive effort at work. Think about it. You can probably pick out a couple of people who you interact with via face-to-face communication with similar frequency but who you feel bonded with to different degrees. Alternatively, you can probably also pick out someone who you are more bonded to but see less frequently and someone who you don’t feel any particular bond with that you see very often (a co-worker perhaps?). So there is something else at work that determines the strength of the bond, and I’m sure you can come up with a variety of reasons (shared interests, etc) why you would be more cognitively driven to keep one person represented in your mental space more than another.
Chayko agrees that face-to-face interaction is the “bedrock” of many significant relationships. However, she points out that there are frequent occurrences of social bonding without face-to-face interactions ever taking place as well. To support this conclusion, she points out that people form bonds with people they have never met in person, even without advanced technology as a factor. Some examples she encountered include bonds with distant ancestors, with authors through reading their books, with celebrities and historical figures, and with an entire nation’s people. She maintains that these bonds are just as strong, just as emotionally charged, and just as genuine as bonds with important people interviewees interact with in the same physical space. “But these connections aren’t real!” you might protest, “You don’t actually come to really know these people.”
However, out of all the relationships that have resulted from “real life” face-to-face interactions, how many do you suppose represent cases in which people really objectively know others as they truly are? Even the closest relationships persist on the basis of some degree of idealization of the other. Aside from this, Chayko names problems that many of us intuitively know. Although the Internet has a reputation for being a place where people deceive each other, Chayko points out that much more deception (including unintentional deception) takes place in “real life” relationships than people are willing to acknowledge. I wish to add that it’s far more common for people to project and see what they want to see in others than to really see people for who they really are. I think this point is one that introverts can especially appreciate since we tend not to broadcast who we really are. Of the people who “know” you, how many actually see you for who you really are? How many see their personal traits and characteristics in you because they like you based on just a few superficial and sometimes imagined similarities? Finally, due to the sense of anonymity provided, the Internet is not only a place for deception but also a place where people display pure honesty and authenticity that they don’t display in person.
Throughout humankind’s advancement of communication methods, people have expressed concern that new communication methods would displace face-to-face communication resulting in the loss of a fundamentally human part of ourselves. Chayko points out that this happened with the development of written communication, the invention of the telephone, and so on. “Oh no!” people exclaimed, “Now people will spend so much time writing to each other/talking on the phone with each other/using Skype instead of getting together and interacting with each other in-person, and we will lose out by not practicing our natural body language or facial expression reading skills!” Chayko’s view is that we are, instead, moving towards incorporating a portfolio of communication styles and that, in this portfolio, desire for face-to-face communication will persist as it has done so through every iteration of communication technology advancement. Chayko’s conceptualization of the mechanism behind social bonding is both provocative and compelling, and I believe that it’s time to entertain these ideas. What are you thoughts on this? I look forward to your comments!