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Catherine Blyth: Facebook ‘friends’ are fine, but the more we chat the less we say

If modern relationships are being built online, the foundations are weak

Is the “x” that ends a letter as good as a kiss? Of course not. So why imagine that trading messages online constitutes a thriving social life? With luck, people won’t for long. Last week marked the welcome end of an era of naivety about internet socialising. First came the ballyhoo at Facebook’s apparent decision to claim ownership of users’ content. For ever. Even if users’ accounts are deleted. Then the Institute of Biology issued a health warning for social networkers.

You may think you’re catching up with mates. Do so by computer and you’re sick, or could be soon. Dr Aric Sigman reckons that virtual interaction upsets immune responses, hormones, arteries, and meddles with our wits. Meaning cancer, strokes, heart disease, and yes, dementia.

Nasty, eh? But don’t be surprised. Inevitably, the drift from face-to-face to sedentary, virtual lives exacts a physical toll. Alas, shock headlines won’t reverse the tide. Ten years ago I hadn’t sent one email. Now the average person spends two irretrievable hours a day emailing. How many more will vapourise thus by 2019? How to stop? Who dares be out of the loop?

Yes, the internet widens worlds. I love keeping in touch with friends and wittering to strangers in Albuquerque about gorgonzola. And of course, as well as global reach, computers have nigh limitless memories. Yet these superpowers neither lengthen days, nor alter our basic human needs. The irony of this communication age is that we communicate less meaningfully. Not despite but due to our dizzying means of being in touch. I wrote The Art of Conversation, fearing we’re losing sight of a super-sophisticated communication technology. So it should be: it’s been in research and development for thousands of years.

Dr Sigman explains: “When we are ‘really’ with people different things happen. It’s probably an evolutionary mechanism that recognises the benefits of us being together geographically.” Such “things” include the release of the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin, which promotes bonding. What’s more, the skills bundled under that baggy term, intuition, aren’t dished out by the fairies. We learn to engage, read and change minds from a lifetime’s social work, beginning when our mother goo-goos, and we gurgle back. This work’s worth the effort. No messaging system is as instant as a face; there’s no greater clue to meaning than tone of voice; there’s no joy greater than a shared laugh.

Increasingly, conversation feels like a burden. With three billion mobile phones, nowhere is private, nowhere do we feel alone. Seven out of 10 Brits prefer email, believing it’s more efficient than talk. If only! Strung-out dialogues are also slow to produce decisions. Thus tools designed to bring us together keep us apart. And we find ourselves distracted by vital electronic organs, burping in our pockets.

I predict a roaring trade in thumb transplants for today’s text junkies. What scares me is how virtual diversions gnaw at the fabric of what we consider life. Thin forms of interaction are seen as equal to the messy, complicated, face-to-face stuff.

The paradoxes of this spectator sport, online networking, were captured by genial proselytiser Henry Elliss, who boasts hundreds of Facebook friends. “It’s only fuddy-duddies who think it’ll kill socialising,” he said. “It’s building relationships. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes – if Facebook disappeared, those friends would be gone.” If that’s building, the foundations are weak. And where’s the time or space for socialising with hundreds of friends? What, you hire a barn? Or are these imaginary friends merely pulses of light on a screen?

And how to avoid rating popularity by numbers, and growing insecure? Facebook and its ilk are addictive because they scratch the social itch. But as Emily Dickinson wrote of drugs, they can’t “still the tooth that nibbles at the soul”. Of course they rot brains too.

The selling point of virtual socialising is that it’s fantastical, untrammelled by grubby reality. In Second Life any gargoyle may out-pout Angelina. Although public, the internet is experienced privately – we enter alone. As self-consciousness and empathy fade, we fearlessly play to our audience, and become commodities.

“This is a very image-conscious generation,” observed social psychologist Professor Sonia Livingstone of contemporary teens. “Celebrity is about people being interested in you when you fall over in the pub.... There’s an element of them being their own self-production.”

Even happy teens infrequently pause to consider that each utterance, each image, they post is as indelible as a tattoo. And unlike tattoos, visible to anyone – future employer, date, or sabre-toothed mother-in-law – with a will and search engine. For ever.

But why fret? Lily Allen bored a wormhole to real fame via MySpace. In a voyeurs’ universe, showing off isn’t what Mum and Dad tell you off for, but self-marketing. Fantasy can feed reality. Or alternatively, delusion. Internet devotees relish its immediacy. Tripadvisor.com, for instance, is treasured for unvarnished reviews. People trust “rate your mate” dating sites. But amateurishness doesn’t guarantee authenticity. Such naivety, and disinhibition, offer a prime hunting ground in which hustlers can rope dopes. Your laptop may put you in reach of millions. But if you’re alone in reality, in reality, you’re alone.

Maybe you disagree. In China, two-thirds of people in an opinion poll agreed that “it’s possible to have real relationships purely online”. Sound mad? Most of us are in the early phase of this dementia.

Since 1976 Professor Michael Shayer of King’s College London has been testing children’s thinking, and it’s on the slide. He doesn’t blame schools, but TV and computers. They impede physical experiences that develop inferential skills, rendering us passive consumers, predisposed to swift, not deep, rewards.

Four TVs inhabit the average British household. Psychologists fear families are talking less than ever. The popular concept “quality time” implies we sense much is impoverished. Such language is also a licence to dole out our time grudgingly – as if it’s okay for most of it to be diluted, distracted, second-best. We worry about spending time, not sharing it. Why else are goggle-boxes in 40 per cent of under-fours’ bedrooms, DVDs in cars, and teddies sold with electronic games in their stomachs?

Are they socially malnourished? American researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent decades observing growing children, taping their lives. No matter how rich or poor their parents, the most important factor in predicting educational success was the number of words to which children were exposed, from the cradle.

Conversation lets us transcend limits in profound ways. Without pub banter between James Watson and Francis Crick, would we understand DNA? But you needn’t discuss the meaning of life to transform your own. Friendships flower in the smile twitching a stranger’s mouth. Provided that you can see that mouth, and sense it’s smiling, not snarling.

Under pressure, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a reprieve, but not a U-turn. He said: “Our next version [of the rules] will be a substantial revision... and it will be written clearly in language everyone can understand.” Am I alone in detecting contempt for the users who have made the 24-year-old rich since he opened shop in 2004? Zuckerberg’s message is that Facebook’s utopian land doesn’t belong to its 175 million people. It has a king, and his word goes.

Imagine the host of a five-year-long, 175-million-person carnival suddenly claims all costumes, and film footage, for himself. The riot would crumble the earth. But Zuckerberg can sleep easy. His people may be revolted, but their “utopia” is what this word means in Greek: a “not-place”. In this nowhere, there’s no road to march. But maybe I misread Zuckerberg. It’s hard to tell, without hearing his tone of voice.

‘The Art of Conversation’ is out now