What’s wrong with face-to-face?

So, YouthNet’s launched a new report today: a study by Professor Michael Hulme into how young people communicate, interact and seek information online.  It’s a really interesting read, encompassing the results of quantitative online research undertaken with 994 young people by The Futures Company, quotes from young people, and comments on the implications for website design and development.  It’s also too much to cover in one blog entry.  So I can only encourage you to go and read it yourself, blog about yourself, discuss the findings and debate the conclusions.

75% of the young people surveyed said that ‘they couldn’t live without the internet’.  That’s probabaly an exaggeration, but I don’t find it surprising.  I’d say the same thing.  Then again, I spend at least eight hours a week-day in front of a computer, I studied multimedia, and I work for an online charity.  I’m going away for a week in the country at the end of the month, and the fact that I’ve been told that there’s no internet or mobile access is already weighing heavily on my mind.  Being such an online advocate, I’m often asked ‘what’s wrong with face-to-face?’

After all, the very nature of online communication is that it’s mediated by a machine such as a computer or hand-held device.  With the lack of body-language and eye contact, and the possibilities for deception, it’s possible to see the internet as cold, impersonal and isolating.  However, what that assumption ignores is the way young people live what Professor Hulme calls ‘hybrid lives’ – their onlines and their offlines are blurred.  Their friends on Facebook may or may not be friends from school or work; status updates on Twitter may become conversation starters in the classroom.  80% of young people surveyed said they use social networking sites to talk to friends or family they see a lot; 22% said that they use them to communicate with someone they don’t know.

So, while it’s impossible to generalise the experience of every young person, it seems that for many these online tools aren’t replacing face-to-face communication methods – they’re complimenting them.  As Professor Hulme says, “The more we can communicate, the more we will, and do, communicate.”  What’s changing is the amount of communication tools available, and people’s ability to choose a communication tool which is appropriate for a particular situation: broadcasting their thoughts in blogs or vlogs, updating a selected group of friends on Facebook, texting or calling an individual, or having a face-to-face conversation.

I don’t have a problem with face-to-face conversation.  In fact, it’s often quite useful.  I do have more of a problem with the assumption that it’s absolutely-always-without-a-doubt the best form of communication.  The internet can be a great way to make first contact with communities of interest, for example.   After all, it’s easy to search online for groups of fellow social media geeks – in my case – than try and spot them during my morning commute.  Once contact is made, a mix of face-to-face and online interactions often result.  The internet also allows us to reach out beyond the restrictions of geographic proximity.  And, as the report goes on to say, the internet can also be a great way to source information about issues young people may feel less comfortable talking about face-to-face, with websites like TheSite.org allowing young people to access trustworthy advice on a range of topics.

While it’s important to realise that there are issues or dangers around communicating on the internet – the possibilities of online bullying, the possibilities of abuse and so on – it’s also important to realise that, in many cases, these are either reflected or replaced by alternative issues or dangers when communication occurs offline.  Moreover, just as I was taught not to give out my name on the phone by my cautious parents, today young people have learned similar lessons about the internet.  77% of the young people surveyed agreed that: ‘On the internet you can never know if someone is who they say they are.’

The past century has seen huge developments in the way we communicate: from telephone calls, through radio and television broadcasts, to the development of mobile phones, faxes and the internet.  While it’s not my place to predict what will come next, it seems obvious that there’s a lot more communication to do, and for each new generation, there’ll be more and more new communication tools as the years progress.

Today, 86% of the young people surveyed loved how new technology helps them communicate with people. Let’s keep creating technology, creating websites and online services, that will help us communicate with people.  Face-to-face, hands-to-keyboard, in the twittersphere and in the blog comments below, let’s ensure this conversation continues.

First published on the YouthNet blog

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