Building relationships in the Age Of Screens

Barry de Waal

As so many of you, I'm trying to find the right balance between being available online as well as offline for my friends, family and colleagues. In this blog I'm sharing my current view on social media and screen usage with you, which is about responsibly integrating (not discarding) the strong elements of social media apps and smart devices into our daily lives to build meaningful relationships. (9-minute read)

 
SOCIALITY – Neologism, derived from ‘Social’ and ‘Society’;  the aggregate of people living together in a community, connected as well as disconnected through social media usage.

As a creative director at a social content agency, creating all types of social media content every day, it’s pretty hard to make the next remarks to your teenage kids and get away with it:

  • ‘Put your phones away and go play outside!’
  • ‘Just go and do something where no screens are involved, okay!’

In this blog, I will question the validity, maybe even the sanity, of these two requests. This blog will go beyond the scope of good parenting, though. Rather, it covers how I believe we should deal with the obvious and omniscient Tyranny of the Screen in society. Because although this tyranny is very real, and although it clearly negatively affects so many families, companies, and other social networks, I believe that now is actually the best time to build a society that combines the fruits of face-to-face contact and physical proximity with the best of what screens, social media and technology have to offer.

It’s this very conviction that influences my day-to-day attitude towards the campaigns we make at We Are Blossom. Admittedly, as a social content agency we daily contribute to the flow (or as some might argue: flood?) of posts on your social timeline. But we sincerely try to be meaningful, instead of intrusive; entertaining instead of annoying. Because otherwise we’re just the new Mad Men, only with smarter toys.

Quite often, the screens of our phones, laptops and smartwatches crash the conversational party the way gonorrhoea kills a sex drive.

Being in the middle of this hurricane of social updates, not only should we be very aware of its risks and downsides, its magic and opportunities; we should also take responsibility by taking the lead in working towards a consumer-friendly version of our social hemisphere.

To be clear, I’m not pretending to have all the answers here. For two reasons: I really dislike that kind of people, and nowadays answers have their way of reaching the best-before-date pretty quickly. But if I’m able to give you some valuable insights or trigger a new thought (or two), then my mission for today is accomplished.

We’re all screenagers

What I do know for sure, is that I cannot possibly blame my children for using their devices so frequently. Their entire social circle consists of people whose hands and eyes are glued to screens most of the time. My kids are dubbed ‘The Screenager Generation’. Feeling as comfortable going back and forth between devices and face-to-face conversation, the way Limburgers switch between talking Dutch and their dialect tongue within the same sentence. And although you and I (probably) weren’t born with a web domain to our name and a device in our hands, we have in fact become screenagers too.

But unlike many other articles and blogs you might have read, mine won’t be telling you this is a bad thing. Let’s just take of the sharp edges and be open to all the positive effects of being a screenager. I’m not saying this because I won’t be making a living if I tell you otherwise. I’m saying it because I’m convinced our line of business will only survive if social media have both a social and selling power, in a way that is meaningful to consumers and brands.

Attribution mistake

Fair enough: quite often, the screens of our phones, laptops and smartwatches crash the conversational party the way gonorrhoea kills a sex drive. But let’s not make the fundamental attribution mistake of pointing at screen usage as the root cause of conversational problems and people disconnecting from each other. For all we know, while frantically working on their smartphones, your friends, colleagues or children might be starting an online fundraiser for the Dutch Heart Foundation, or could be reaching out to the distant many around the world, for that final step towards a great innovation, a gorgeous product design, or a 3D-printed prosthetic for developing countries.

What others tell you to do

This fundamental attribution mistake is made by almost every blog or book that’s out there about social media and screen (over-)usage. They’ll tell you to set a daily usage schedule, establish technology-free days or vacations, even to wean yourself off of usage completely.

Oh, sure, I did come across sane advice as well, but most of it was too easy on the stomach, such as this: ‘Recognize the place social media and smartphone usage has in your life’. Specifically one article really rang true and relevant to my ears. Maybe to yours as well. It was a nicely written diary blog by Canay Atalay, talking about a social media detox; fortunately, it was much more than that, since it touched upon some of the subjects below that I feel are key to the discussion we should be having in the upcoming year.

Dopamine

We all know about the science and technology that gets people scrolling, swiping and double-tapping; about the urge we feel when we see that red button with a number of unread (‘Important!’) updates on our smartphones; about the dopamine soothing the socially hungry brain; about the pressure we feel to stay connected to friends, family and colleagues that are somewhere else doing God knows what. FOMO, years ago acknowledged as the reason why so often we are shutting out others by looking at our smartphones. But the way I see it, there’s a bit more to it than just this fear of missing out.

Cause vs Effect

As a parent, but also as a friend, colleague and spouse, I have been wondering these past few months: what is the cause and what is the effect? Are devices and apps causing our Always On Stress, or are we? Are devices and apps so demanding we cannot resist them? Or is it simply us, demanding of ourselves that we don’t miss out on anything? In other words:

Isn’t blaming smartphones, screens and social media like blaming the cigarette for smoking?

Result vs Reason

The result of you looking at your screen might be that others feel you’re shutting them out. But the reason to look at your screen and interact with it, is not to shut others out. Rather, it’s to include yourself in. Into a world that gives you whatever you want whenever you want it. You want to treat yourself to this All You Can Eat menu, containing every imaginable type and size of content. (Probably accompanied by the ‘soundtrack of your life’ on your headset, provided by Deezer or Spotify.)

Certainty vs Uncertainty

Also, I believe our brain is almost constantly choosing between: A) the certainty of that tiny shot of dopamine we get from liking, sharing, commenting on the one hand, and B) the uncertainty of what’s going to happen when there’s no screen to entertain us. Apparently, the certainty of a small and instant reward beats the uncertainty of a potentially larger but delayed one. I used to think that instant gratification was merely linked to the child’s or adolescent’s brain.

But as it turns out, adults may be almost just as impatient as children are, when it comes to their smartphones. Although adults have a more developed prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that influences our impulsive behavior), they still fall victim to instant gratification. Why? To them, smartphones are what the marshmallows were in the famous Marshmallow Experiment, executed at Stanford University: simply too hard to resist.

Are we mentally weak?

I think we are simply changing. Technology is changing so rapidly, that the speed at which our brain is being re-programmed is too low. And – subsequently – our behavioral change cannot possibly keep up. It’s not that strange that we look down on our screens when they light up: it’s always a somewhat rewarding experience, so why wouldn’t we? We just have to tap a button to remember (Google, Shazam), to find a housekeeper (Helpling), or to get a car when we need one (GreenWheels). And, really ‘grandpa’, isn’t it social to be on-screen? We’re experiencing so much on-screen fun, entertainment and progress together these days by gaming, video-calling and real-time interaction during live streams. It has almost become an awkward remark, stating that actual face-to-face communication should still be preferred, because it would be more valuable and social.

Consolidation

Instead of believing we’re going socially bankrupt, I think we’re going to reap the benefits of all the available technology, and the experiences (positive and negative) we’ve had during the first phase of intense social media consumption we’ve gone through; these past 3-5 years.

As with many societal developments, after a period of over-consumption and subsequent stress and illness, we’re entering a phase of consolidation. In which a sense of togetherness, sharing and truly connecting actually comes from watching something on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat together. Not competing with the more conventional ways of interacting. But simply giving us extra tools, time and ways to connect.

In other words: let’s not see screen time as hours we spend instead of face-to-face conversation. Let’s not see it as a substitute, but as a meaningful supplement to our daily dose of conversation. The way it was intended in the first place. As technology that’s out there to help us talk, share, entertain in a new and different way than we’ve grown accustomed to.

Social media usage as a meaningful supplement to our daily dose of conversation.

So, yes, I’m hopeful. But I’m just as hopeful as I am realistic. As I cannot (and don’t want to) deny the conscious way social platforms, apps, brands and guys like me are creating social content that makes consumers want to click on, interact and engage with. But the keywords here are: ‘want to’. As a society (and as the companies, families and groups of friends this society is made of) we need to counterweight this with other entertaining, meaningful conversational moments; either on-screen or off-screen.

Experiment. Learn. Improve.

Let me illustrate my hopeful state-of-mind  by giving you a personal example of the meaningful supplement social media can be. The Instagram content my 13-year-old son shares with me daily, gives me valuable insights about what and who he loves and hates. I listen to stuff on his Soundcloud page and YouTube channel, that he’s been working on as a young producer.

I’ve seen so much good come from this. My kids are making stuff for an audience; which is a great way to build confidence, resilience as well as empathy. Both my son and my daughter (who’s taking her first steps on Musical.ly and Instagram) are throwing stuff online, which makes them feel anxious about the feedback they’ll get. Which is great, because they will have to deal with feedback the rest of their lives. Also, they are experiencing first-hand what it feels like when something they have shared is applauded or ignored by their following (albeit small).

That’s just kids’ stuff? It can easily be transferred to the adult world. It’s just that us grown-ups are more afraid of making mistakes. And that’s a shame, of course. Because our learning curve could be so much steeper when we use social media and other platforms to experiment as well, to learn and improve the way our kids do. We might find out there are thousands like us (not physically around us) that we can talk to, feel connected to, and thanks to whom we can make better and more successful stuff.

Which is why I’m pretty confident that my ‘Sociality’ definition at the top of this article will gradually change into the next one:

SOCIALITY – Neologism, derived from ‘Social’ and ‘Society’;  the aggregate of people living together in a community, connected and enriched through social media usage.

What now?

I would love to hear your view on Sociality, and how our society should be evolving towards one that integrates the good stuff of social media and screen usage into our daily lives. Not in a way that devices become our daily lives, but give us something to laugh, think or talk about. In a way that we know how and when to either ignore or pick up our devices. Please, share your thoughts, so I can learn from them, build on them, and hopefully bring them back to you in better shape. Share insightful articles with me to help me dive deeper, and to second-guess my own view above. As Ralf van Lieshout (strategist & co-founder of We Are Blossom) has already done by sharing this September article by Jean M. Twenge, featured in The Atlantic. Thanks, Ralf!