Social Snacking: When ICT has MSG?

March 31, 2009

In human terms, the opposite of being connected is not being unconnected, it’s being lonely. This weekend I read Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick.  It’s one of a few books I’ve read recently that take a single topic and give it a 360 treatment from every social science modality – evolutionary psychology, social psychology, epidemiology, economics, etc.

Here is a passage that connects the topic of lonliness to ICT:

“When being physically together is not possible, we try to satisfy our yearnings by speaking briefly on the telephone, sending an instant message, or gazing at a loved one’s photograph, practices that have been called “social snacking”– but a snack is not a meal.  A military friend of mine described the problem created by the introduction of satellite phones to the modern war zone.  During tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he and his comrades were eager at first for any chance to call home.  They quickly learned, however, that the sudden juxtaposition of two such very different worlds — the battlefield and the family room — was not just unsatisfactory but emotionally upsetting, both to the men in the field and to the wives and children at home.   He said you could always tell who had just called home by his empty, “thousand-yard stare.”  The abstracted nature of electronic communication — the absence of physical context and forms of connection — may account in part for the finding that increased Internet use can increase social isolation as well as depression when it replaces more tangible forms of human contact.

Again, forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need.  But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.   In a culture built around disconnection, the better move is to work that much harder to reach out to those with whom we share even the most superficial contact in the everyday world.”

To put things in perspective the next passage goes over meta-analysis research that shows that church attendance decreases mortality rates by 25%.  What wonders will telehealth provide to get such impressive decreases in mortality?  If such decreases are achieved  through ICT innovations will they also support the many other benefits that come from having an active social life?

The concept of “social snacking” was new to me so I rooted around for some more on the topic.  In The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, & Bullying,  authors Kipling D. Williams, Joseph P. Forgas, William von Hippel describe social snacking as “temporary substitutes for direct interaction…when direct interaction with an accepting other is unavailable.”  They go on to describe how social snacking is a resourceful means for dealing with isolation- at least on a temporary basis.

This sort of research is the capilliary level for understanding how to artfully apply ICT.  I hope it will filter up to influence ICT infrastructure design.


Social Impact, Systems