Do Collaboration Technologies lead to loneliness and isolation?

I watched this video on the “The Innovation of Loneliness”

The author weaves a very compelling story line starting with social groups of monkeys (20 or less); the invention of language to shape larger and more stable groups (max natural size is 150 people); and a continued storyline which takes us to the point of a weakened social fabric where more and more people define themselves as lonely.

“Loneliness has become the most common ailment of the modern world”, the author proclaims.

152991356And what is the root cause of this loneliness? Our addiction to technology.

An addiction, which allows us to manage our social lives more effectively but not distinguish between quality and quantity in our relationships.

But that is not what the experts on loneliness would say.  John Cacioppo a psychologist from the University of Chicago, one of the leading experts on loneliness, states that technologies are just different tools.  “Like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.  How we use these technologies can lead to more integration, rather than more isolation.”

The video on Loneliness says that we are sacrificing conversation for connection.  It says we are trading the deep meaning of friendship and intimacy for the exchanging of photos and chat conversations.  If that is truly happening then the author has a point.

But if the tools are being used to have more conversation, more real time communication, then the tools are being used to further develop the relationship.

According to the Daily Mail, a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in 2010, 

“… found that when interacting directly with friends on Facebook – whether posting messages or pictures on wall, tagging photos or ‘liking’ things, feelings of well-being and sociability increased. But when they passively consumed content on Facebook, the opposite was true. An earlier study from the same researcher found that increased internet use led to a decline in communications with friends and family, and increased depression and loneliness.” 

The key difference is “interacting directly with” vs. “passively consumed content”.  “Interacting directly with” is a conversation, and a conversation is a real time communication.

“Passively consumed content” is a connection, a connection that can happen anytime.  A passive connection is an iterative communication.

In a conversation you can’t control the content of the communication.  You can control the subject of the conversation but not the actual conversation.

Using technology to engage in a conversation in real time means that you are using technology to interact directly with other people.  The technology is enabling the building of a relationship between people, which leads to more integration and less loneliness.

Which communications tools allow you to build the best relationships?

Tools which:

  1. Can be easily used between a few number of people
  2. Provide a high level of interactivity
  3. Provide the richest experience

Let’s talk about the first two criteria in the rest of this blog and address ‘richness’ in my next blog.

Previously we explored a relative framework for communication enabled by different types of communications.  We can use the same framework again to help us determine which technology tools will help us interact directly with others vs. simply having a passive connection.

Technology tools which enable a high level of interaction between a fewer number of individuals will provide the highest level of direct interaction.

Those tools will be concentrated in the bottom right quadrant of the framework (see figure below) where there is a high level of interaction and low number of participants.

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This does not mean that only tools in this quadrant will provide direct interaction.

Social media communication tools like Facebook (found in the upper right quadrant) can also provide a level of direct interaction if used in a more interactive manner (real time).  The yellow gradient represents the relative concentration of the tools that provide the highest level of direct interaction – highly concentrated in the bottom right quadrant and diffusing as you spread out from the bottom right corner to the rest of the graph.

When the technologies are used to enable a conversation and not create a passive connection, then you can avoid the pitfalls that the video on loneliness so eloquently portrays:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 8.45.06 AM

If we can identify and use communications tools that encourage interacting directly with others, we can create stronger relationships between workers in different locations vs. creating isolation and loneliness.

As the author of the video points out, we can slip into thinking that being always connected will make us less alone, but if we are not able to be alone, we are only going to know how to be lonely.

Stay tuned for my next blog about which collaboration technologies provide the richest communication experience.

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