We've all read or heard countless people lament that social media and online interaction has fundamentally destroyed our ability to create interpersonal relationships in a meaningful way. I usually just brush them off as old-fashioned or having an incomplete understanding of how to manage the duality of their online and offline lives, but somehow a critical mass of such opinions has forced me to think about them seriously. The conclusion I've come to, though, is quite the opposite of those who think teens who spend all their time on social networks are unable to have a good face to face conversation. I think that social media can actually make us better at offline social interaction.
With social media, we can get feedback on the value of what we're saying. Whether it's Facebook 'likes' or Twitter 'favorites,' we can understand which things we're saying are most liked by our audience.
How is posting a Facebook status so different from telling a story at a party? You're communicating something that matters to you to a group of people and hoping they respond positively. At a party, most will at least pretend to laugh and tell you how good a job you did, but on social media you get a more genuine metric of the quality of your post. Those who like it are engaging in an unprovoked action in an no-pressure environment (their own living room, bedroom or phone), meaning they'll only 'like' if they actually like.
It's easy to criticize our attraction to getting this feedback by saying that it encourages us to pander to trends and what other people like, but we all know that sometimes what other people like is important in offline social interactions too. Most of us pander in real life. That's how you get people to like you when networking or when making new friends. That's how we accomplish goals in our lives, whether professional or social, which is an important part of social interaction that people like to ignore when they're pessimistically yammering (or ironically tweeting or Facebook posting) about how social media has ruined their lives.
We can use social media to learn more about the people we want to interact with. Imagine if every time you met someone new, a little screen display in your glasses showed you the person's interests, their recent vacations and their social group. Futuristic robot style. Wouldn't that help you have better conversation with them? We can learn all those things using social media, and then use them for offline conversation. It's no longer creepy to say: "I saw the pictures you took when you went to Jamaica, tell me all about it!"
Social media also gives us more practice in social interactions. Practice makes perfect. The sheer volume of social interactions an individual has on a daily basis has gone up, for better or for worse. Thanks to social media you can interact with your friends and acquaintances from anywhere and even during the times you're passively sitting at home, which otherwise would have been a time void of social interaction. Nobody debates that more interaction makes you better at it, so social media clearly does have the ability to help us become better conversationalists.
Social media will never replace human interaction, but it's not supposed to. It's supposed to give us a new avenue through which to interact and do all the things regular social interaction should do. Plan parties, keep in touch with friends and make jokes. I'll stick to interacting through social media, because I'm quite sure my social aptitude has gone up along with my Klout score.