Here’s my first interview in 2013 with the Weekend Post newspaper’s John Harvey.

Children playing with cellphonesLOVE it or hate it, social media is here to stay and will continue to revolutionise the way we communicate.

Initially the preserve of well-to-do college students (as was the case with Microsoft and Apple before them), platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become part and parcel of practically everyone’s daily lives, save a few cynical die-hards clinging to the past.

The ability to relay news – personal or otherwise – at the touch of a button gives the user complete control over cyberspace and in the manner he or she wishes to convey the specific item.

There are so many advantages to social media that most major corporations have made it an integral part of their marketing strategies.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook may have lost points on the New York Stock Exchange last year, but it would take a brave man to bet against him dominating the markets as he has done computers and cellphones across the globe.

Yet while there is little disputing their cultural and economic relevance, for leading South African online behaviour expert Ramon Thomas Facebook and Twitter are increasingly facilitating the “regression” of people’s emotional maturity,

Thomas, whose expertise in web-based trends has earned him appearances on Carte Blanche, CNBC Africa, 3Talk, news and Special Assignment, contends “the lines between the real and virtual world” have become so blurred that people are no longer making an effort in actual human relationships.

“That is very dangerous, because people are starting to care less about each other as they have less actual interaction, preferring instead to retreat to their ‘safe’ worlds of Facebook or Twitter,” he told Weekend Post earlier this week.

Thomas’s assertions are drawn from his work with students, school children and their parents. He is in high demand around the country as a motivational speaker, particularly Johannesburg and Cape Town.

One of his more interesting findings is that dating websites are fast becoming obsolete as cellphones have “a lot more power because the user knows they are interacting with someone they know”.

“You will only give a BBM [Blackberry Messenger] pin to someone you know. It’s almost the same with WhatsApp. Basically people are starting to interact a lot more offline, and so that is killing the dating sites.

“However this does not mean they are actually interacting. All it shows is that they are overdependent on these platforms for virtual interaction.”

Thomas recalled an incident in Cape Town recently where a man was attending a comedy show with a group of friends, and the girls in the group tweeted every joke the comedian told.

“At interval the man tried to make a point that the object was to listen to the comedian and enjoy the experience. He did this by telling his own joke, but instead of understanding what he was getting at the girls then tweeted what he had said.”

Thomas believes that the psychological impact of social media technologies is twofold, in that it actively encourages flagrant voyeurism while simultaneously causing people to not put as much effort into their relationships as they used to.

“I know cases where girls don’t even break up with their boyfriends in person, but simply post that they no longer want to be with them.

“I often think of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World in which people have multiple casual sexual partners. The internet is very much like that, where people have all these virtual relationships even though they don’t really care about the other person they are interacting with.”

What is most disturbing, he says, is that people seem to be regressing in terms of their emotional maturity.

“There is a big difference between child-like and childish. On social networks there is a lot of childish behaviour, even from people well into their thirties and forties. It seems that they wish to regress to a place that allows them to gossip like teenagers.

“The internet realm is also a totally immersive experience for them. You need only look at a game like SIMS where you can dictate what the characters do, basically a soap opera in a virtual world. Some users can’t even live without games like these, and that is very worrying because they would rather live through computer images than engage with real people.”

Thomas says while there is no doubt that the internet and social media have made life easier, it is essential that a balance is struck between virtual and real.

“The important thing is to set yourself boundaries and recognise that you have the power to switch off the apps when you decide.

“I explain it like this when I present my seminars to the schools: would you rather go the beach and jump in the sea, or stay at home and dip your feet in the pool. That is the difference between the real and virtual worlds, and it is important to get the balance right.”

Certainly Thomas does raise a number of excellent points that unfortunately avid social networkers rarely pause to consider.

Any visit to the local shopping mall will reveal that the connectedness that one used to encounter among laughing friends or between couples as they enjoy a bite to eat has been divided by a type of technological barrier as those around the table tweet everything while saying nothing to one another.

Development of literacy skills also seems to have taken a nose-dive as people of all ages resort to acronyms to describe emotions (Lol for laugh out loud, for example) or communicate in “146 characters or less”.

Thomas says in his research he has found that people who only a few years ago would easily consume a few books a month cannot even finish a chapter anymore because they are so used to short bursts of information on social networks.

The burning question, of course, is whether social media is intended for breezy entertainment and gossip, or transference of credible information. Certainly it is a handy tool for the traditional media, but too frequently it has been found wanting as a trustworthy source.

The number of occasions that people have mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela on Twitter, for example, indicates just how a serious occurrence can be reduced to rubble on the gossip wire – one of the childish indulgences of which Thomas speaks.

At the end of the day the man’s advice to strike a balance is wisest. Only the future knows whether the internet will be our making or our doom as a species.

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