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How Technology Has Changed The Way We Communicate

The ever-changing realm of technology has always fascinated the world, and how new advances in technology have helped shape the way people communicate with one another. Technological developments have changed the way we connect to others and we have adapted the rules of communication to work with these changes.

Debating whether or not all these new advances in communication technology are good or bad seems to be the hot topic. Walking down the street to classes, I see a lot of students with their heads down looking at a phone screen with their fingers moving at a furious pace. We are communicating all the time, and not in the sense that “one cannot not communicate” by nonverbal expressions and the clothes we wear. People are interacting with one another twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on an interpersonal level.

Technology allows us to stay connected to everyone we know, ones we don’t, and some that we don’t expect to interact with again.  One of the strongest ways technologies have shaped relational development and interpersonal communication is how people in long-distance relationships can stay in touch and continue to be in a relationship, be it friends or romantic. Leaving for college was a stressful experience, especially in terms of leaving all of my high school friends behind and moving away from my girlfriend at the time. Facebook has provided a method to stay in touch with friends from home as we experience different things at different colleges across the country. When we do interact in a face-to-face (FtF) manner during holiday breaks, we’re able to talk about pictures posted of one another, and share in real-time those experiences when we’re not with them.

Social media has also allowed people to better be able to manage a greater number of friends and interactions with others. In an ever-increasing transient culture, especially in college, being able to stay connected to the multitudes of people one meets at a party or having the ability to share clarifications on certain topics while studying for an exam, technology has opened more doors than shut them.

Another way developments in technology have shaped interpersonal communication is expanding upon the social penetration theory, and allowing people to explore the onion model in new ways. When on a date, face-to-face communication is nice, as we can see emotions and we trust, maybe more so than online, that the discussions are genuine and sincere. The problem with a date is that it has an expiration. With the explosion of text messaging and social media, a “date” can continue for a longer period of time. Technology, such as texting, allows people in a relationship to explore more topics, and once communicating face-to-face, they’re able to bring up the same topics and discuss in further detail and drill down to more core values of the topic.

Implications of the increasing use of text messages, in terms of romance, courtship, and uncertainty reduction, is technology doesn’t always provide an “end”, like a date does communicating in a FtF manner. After a date ends and continuous texting begins, there is no end unless someone stops responding or falls asleep. It’s a tough call, deciding on who should respond last or have the final say, even after one has said a final “goodnight”. The ability to fire off any random thought can be very powerful, both in terms of good and evil.

Is the way dating used to be done inefficient? Did it become old and tired? Is technology the sole factor in changing the way we date?

It seems to me that no one in college strictly dates anymore. Dates are reserved for couples that are already in a relationship, and really more of a formality than anything. The mentality behind it is, “I’m dating you, and so I have to take you on a date because that’s what we’re supposed to do.” Dating isn’t used to get to know someone or to show interest.

Dates are great for couples in a relationship, but I think dates should be great for those not in a relationship. We should get excited about dating again. The first thing we have to do is redefine what dating is in the year 2011. Now, if a guy is looking for a date, it takes a few seconds to compose a text message, and it can be sent to a group of potential suitors all at once. He’s able to pick and choose his best bet. This whole thing happens usually at two points during the night:

1.       Around 8:30-9pm, when looking for something to do that night

2.       Between 11:30pm-1:30am, at a crowded bar Uptown, still determining which woman is the best potential for hooking up with

That doesn’t sound like dating, and that’s because it’s not. It’s hooking up. College kids want to skip the talking and get to making out and having sex. There is no courtship anymore. The above scenario may be a bit extreme, but it’s far too common. Texting back and forth and holding hour long Facebook Chat conversations seem to have replaced the first date. Technology has its place in the dating realm, but it shouldn’t be a substitute.

There is a problem that may be caused by the use of texting and Facebook chat, and that is the speed of which questions are asked and topics are changed. Being able to fire off question after question is great for trying to learn a lot of different things about a person, but there may never be deep conversations about most of the topics because there are limitations to technology, such as an SMS message only allowing 160 characters. These limitations may not be of great concern in the beginning of relationships, or relationships that are not of the romantic variety, but often in a meaningful relationship there needs to be times when conversations reach the core of the onion and deeper values are discussed and expressed.

There is research to suggest that computer mediated communication (CMC) is more effective than FtF due to restrictions such as emotions and nonverbal messages. Tidwell and Walther documented CMC and FtF couples engaging in their first meetings and discovered that CMC partners displayed more self-disclosures and greater intensity leading to quicker relational development (Maintaining Relationships Through Communication, 147-148). Implications of this research may describe situations where relational partners begin communication online and intimacy levels increase quickly due to the more direct nature of CMC, and then transition to more FtF communication with CMC used as a relationship-nurturing tool. The more similarity that can be assessed through CMC, the less uncertain the relational development is, the easier to transition to face-to-face communication.

One criticism that has been brought up about the use of technology in developing relationships is that people can hide behind the technology wall. One may be more comfortable interacting with another through text messages, instead of face-to-face. Options like SMS messages and instant messaging are great in the way that they allow users to open up and be more social, but when the time comes to interact in a face-to-face manner, the walls may come down and the quality of interaction may drop. Research has shown that the more perceived privacy a technological communication tool has, the more disclosure one is willing to share (When is trust not enough?, 1123).  A man more comfortable communicating with a potential female suitor via text may disappoint her if he violates her expectations based on the interactions they had through the use of technology.

Along the same point, technological developments allow users to create a separate identity. Social media and texting can be both synchronous and asynchronous communication methods, either happening in real-time or delayed. When it is synchronous, instant messaging can be more like face-to-face communication. However, when communication through technology is asynchronous, such as email or text message, the users have time to craft a message that is trying to put their best foot forward. Again, it may be viewed as a con in the sense that by thinking about a response and having the ability to erase and rewrite, it’s removing the genuine and raw emotion of instantaneous responses. The reverse of that is users think more about what they are saying and interactions and responses are more genuine because they have taken the time to really think about it.

Problems occurring when using various methods of technology to communicate with the same person is the ways one uses a particular method over the other. Face-to-face communication may be the only time serious topics are discussed, or when trying to fix relational problems. On the other hand, text messages may be reserved for playful communication and flirting. Problems happen when particular communications from one medium cross over to the next (The Breakup 2.0). Messages reserved for one medium that come across in a different one are at odds with one another, and it takes additional follow-up to decipher the real meaning, and how to interpret received messages. A way to nurture and future-proof a relationship that is built around communication technologies is to communicate all kinds of messages through multiple means, not reserving one type of message for a particular medium and other messages to another.

Taking a step outside of the mainly romantic realm of interpersonal communication and technology, technological developments have opened almost endless possibilities for people to find others who have similar interests as them, no matter how out there or niche. Online communities, such as message boards and Facebook groups, allow users to find one another and provide a space for them to discuss things like the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother or Chicago Blackhawks hockey, no matter how far apart. Research by Dimmick has demonstrated that technology has interpersonal uses in the same way as FtF communication, but also those just of entertainment and information seeking (Communication Technology and Social Change, 43).  The challenge is deciding if someone is choosing to interact with message boards for pure entertainment or to build relationships with other users.

The biggest question is, does the increased use of technology diminish the role of relational development and detach interpersonal communication between people? I’ve often thought that technology has weakened communication to an extent, especially in terms of the way “it used to be.” I hate talking on the phone, so I avoid talking on the phone at all costs. My parents think that I need to talk on the phone every once in awhile to friends and girlfriends, but I think the phone call is inefficient. Having said that, with the increasing role of technology in our relational development, people must learn to adapt.

David Brooks, in his piece “For many, cell phones have made courtship fluid”, contends that there are fewer rules now in regards to social commitments and more fluid commitments. I don’t feel there are fewer rules, but I believe that the rules have changed. A criticism of electronic forms of communication is the lack of emotion or misinterpreted tone in messages. Users have adapted to those criticisms by adding emoticons and instead of beating around the bush, communicators must get to the point more quickly (Maintaining Relationships Through Communication, 148-149).  The same criticisms came about with the introduction and adoption of the telephone, with people believing it would replace face-to-face communication (Maintaining Relationships Through Communication, 142). The world survived the telephone scare, and can adopt new rules of using more technology to communicate with one another.

Brooks does have a valid point when describing that through the use of technology, society is emphasizing “I-It” relationships. I contend, however, that all of society’s interactions are moving toward “I-It” and modular relationships. Technology is just falling in line with the way society runs. People are able to send messages to larger groups of people at the same time, looking for a suitor for the night or just someone to get a drink with or enjoy a movie. It could be viewed as just a means to an end, but isn’t that the point of all communication? People need to communicate, and if technology allows them to accomplish that, it doesn’t seem to be wrong, just different from before.

There are however times when technology seems to have more quickly transitioned or allowed our culture to accept “I-It” relationships, in negative ways. One striking example of this is the increase in online infidelity. Whitty’s study on Internet infidelity showed that many people don’t see online “cheating” as actual infidelity. The interactions they have online, or through text messages, are simply an escape from the reality of being locked into a relationship or done merely for fun flirtation (Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, 94-96). Again, the notion of “I-It” and only engaging as a means to satisfy an end can be considered a downfall of technological relational development.

Technology will continue to be the driving force behind many of the ways people interact with one another. New advancements make communicating quicker, easier, and more efficient, but it also allows us to stay connected to one another more often, with larger groups of people. People have always fought technology and feared it diminishing the ways of old, but eventually the new ways become accepted and the norm, and there isn’t much discussion. The same goes with how technology has evolved interpersonal communication, and we, as users, must adapt, instead of fighting it. The one thing users have to remember is, there is always a time and a place for a text message or Facebook status update, but there always will still be a time and a place for sitting down at a bar or at the kitchen table and having a face-to-face conversation.  The world will continue to find it difficult to manage and separate, but the future is bright, especially if I am able to share this paper or a personal blog post with hundreds of Facebook friends and Twitter followers and strike up a conversation online about it, and then progress it to further and more core discussions face-to-face.