What explains the spectacular success of Facebook? Does it represent the desire of people to go online to connect with each other, with brands and with information? Or does the rise of this social networking platform actually reflect a more fundamental human need — to connect in real life?
It is easy to see Facebook’s success as a sign of dramatic change — in technology and in human relations. But a deeper look suggests that Facebook’s rise is merely Exhibit A of a much larger truth: Our modern society is not providing people with the human connections they crave, and online social networking is a rather poor substitute.
Statistics show that more people than ever live alone in the USA. According to the Census, about 31 million Americans live alone, representing 28% of the nation’s households.
Online talk unsatisfying
Until recently, our cities were losing population as people flocked to suburban enclaves of large homes where one’s next-door neighbors are often strangers. The Internet has provided powerful new ways to interact with people, even as we remain physically isolated. But these are unsatisfying replacements for face-to-face contact.
For the past six years, we have been studying the conversations of the American public, and we’ve conducted similar surveys that confirm our results in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, Russia and South Korea. Our research has focused on all forms of conversation, whether they happen face to face, over the phone or online.
The data we have collected via more than 2 million conversations have taught us:
•75% of conversations in the U.S. (and even more in other countries) still happen face to face; less than 10% take place through the Internet. The rise of social media, such as Facebook, has led to a reduction in e-mail “conversations,” but not a decline in face-to-face interaction.
•Face-to-face conversations tend to be more positive, and more likely to be perceived as credible, in comparison with online. What people talk about online differs dramatically from offline. The former tends to be driven by what is perceived as “cool,” while the latter tends to be about sharing real life experiences.
Power of media
•In the sphere of products and services, conversations are significantly impacted by what we see and hear in “traditional” media, including television, radio and print publishing and online. These traditional media motivate and provide content to far more conversations than online social media does.
What we have learned about the power of traditional media to spark conversations provides an important insight. All forms of communication work best when they lead to the sharing of ideas and recommendations, especially face to face. The fact is, all media are social — or should be.
Social media has helped us rediscover the power of “social.” But the richest social gold mine is literally right under our noses: in the word-of-mouth conversations that happen in our kitchens and living rooms, next to the office water cooler, and on the sidelines of youth sporting events. These are the places where we actually live our lives.
Facebook is a fine way to find long-lost friends and exchange tidbits of information and recommendations. But if we want to promote real change — as in our politics, public policies and cultural behavior — it’s best we do it face to face.
Ed Keller and Brad Fay are co-authors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, to be published in May. They are also principals of the Keller Fay Group, a market research and consulting firm.