Is Technology Taking Its Toll on Our Relationships?

Mar 13, 2010 1:44pm

AUSTIN, Texas 

Is social media making us too social? Maybe so. 

During this year's South by Southwest Interactive conference, which is taking place this week in Austin, Texas (think geeks galore gushing about tech start-ups, social networking sites and the next Twitter), a panel of academics and social media experts took a look at what technology is doing to our personal relationships.

One of the points they raised is that we’re starting to reach a limit on how many “friendships” we can maintain. “We’re starting to max out the number of people that we can connect with,” said Matthew S. Weber, a senior researcher and doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. “Great that you have a 1,000 friends on Facebook, but you really can’t maintain those relationships and maintain those contacts.”

Highlighting research by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University, Weber said that according to “Dunbar’s Number” human brains can really only handle 150 friendships.

Dunbar initially came up with this number in the 1990s, but recently repeated the research to consider social networking sites. You may have 1,000s of friends, but according to that research, you can only have meaningful friendships with a much smaller group. (Incidentally, Facebook says that the average user has 130 friends.)

Corinne Weisgerber, another panelist and assistant professor of communication at St. Edward’s University in Austin, agreed that people are reaching a limit. “I think in the research we’ve seen there’s the question of time displacement,” she said, meaning the time you spend chatting, IM-ing, friending and tweeting with people online takes away from face-to-face conversations and activities.

The panelists also took a look a technology’s affect on romance. Ashley Brown, a marketing manager for an Austin-based higher education start-up called Classhive, said that she believes technology is “completely degrading” the way we communicate romance.

Given all the information that exists about each person online – from their Facebook profiles to Twitter updates – Brown said technology leapfrogs couples three months and has made the blind date practically obsolete.

But others thought that could be a good thing. “You kind of skip some of the crap early on,” said Jenn Deering Davis, co-founder and chief of community experience at Appozite, an Austin-based software start-up.

Weisberger added that online information complicates romance. It may be helpful to research potential dates and get the skinny on them before meeting them face to face, but it can also set up expectations.

As for how technology is changing work relationships, the panelists said that though people are working longer hours because of technology, workplace satisfaction surveys indicate that people are actually happier because they have more flexibility.

Weber cited recent research from the U.K.’s Nectar business, a business rewards program, which found that BlackBerrys add 10 extra work days each year.

– Ki Mae Heussner

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