How is Online Communication Changing Us?

Over a decade ago, I started getting interested in how new digital and social media have been changing human behavior. I’d hop onto Facebook and find myself getting into political conversations and observe others engaging and retreating in ways that seemed different than face-to-face discussions. As time passed, I even found myself pulling back from discussions as my number of connections on the site grew. Since we’re social creatures constantly trying to get a read on norms in any situation, this made me wonder if these subtle adjustments might have any impact on my own or others’ offline behaviors too—in the workplace, in leadership applications, in efforts to collaborate, and more.

What I experienced soon had a name, “context collapse,” that describes how we adjust our communication when the multiple audiences in our lives flatten into one. Prior to social media, the only times a person might have most of the people in their life together in one space would be at an event like a wedding. But social media made this type of situation an everyday occurrence, changing the expectations for how and what we communicate. You might censor your political opinions more when it’s not just a close group of friends but family, co-workers, and acquaintances who are all privy to your messages on a site, for instance.

Marshall McLuhan famously said the “medium is the message,” developing into a whole movement called “media ecology” that studies media as environments we come to live within. Sure, VR, augmented reality, and their offshoots show what it’s like to get immersed in a media environment, and yes, “screenagers” are breaking records for time spent online (while receiving their fair share of scapegoating). But all this belies a broader development: everyone is immersed in some form of computing, mobile, and screen usage throughout every day.

To what effect? In a brilliant recent essay, Brian Ott finds that so much time on computers is restructuring our minds, since every time we use one we’re working with “three structural properties and, hence, underlying logics: digitization (binary code), algorithmic execution (input/output), and efficiency (machine logic),” leading to a worrying implication: “repeated exposure to these logics cultivates a digital mind, a model of thinking, communicating, and sense-making characterized by intransigence, impertinence, and impulsivity.” Cue some new doctors’ ads. If you’re experiencing intransigence, impertinence, or impulsivity in your life, it might be time to lay off the screens a bit.

Similarly, researching the shifts people make between their online and offline lives, Carrie Anne Platt, Jose Marichal, and I recently addressed the question, “Why Do Some Shout and Others Stay Silent? We found a great deal of self-censorship and retreats from engagement online, and some very skewed and loud voices that make it seem like there’s more polarization online than is likely the case. (For a quick synopsis of our other findings, see this Tech Policy Press review). Every new medium both gives and takes, but the structures for online communication continue to be anything but neutral (and this before getting to psychological impacts, developments with AI, and more). For now, there’s some practical lessons to follow: keep an eye on not just what media you consume, but how media are consuming you. If you’re a leader or working with teams, think through what kind of media environment you want to support, and what the potential impacts of your choices could mean for everyday work. Most of all, support media literacy and, at every opportunity, look for the ways of being invited by different forms of online communication.