Social Media Research

Is Wi-Fi Making You Anti-Social?

David Murton.jpgGuest post by David Murton, a professional writer specializing in the fields of social media and marketing. He is also an avid piano and accordion player, with a particular interest in the music of the Classical era.

In the pantheon of big ideas, the concept of the noosphere ranks right up there with the best of them. Developed most famously by Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century Jesuit scientist and philosopher, the concept of the noosphere holds that there emerges among us a sphere of interconnected consciousness, a world-enveloping intelligence that interacts with both the inanimate geosphere and the living biosphere to shape the very destiny of the planet itself.

is wi-fi making you anti-socialInteresting idea. And, as I type this on my computer, sitting alone at a table for two in a cafe in Black Mountain, North Carolina where a score of other individuals also sit alone at a table for two typing God-knows-what into their computers, it is perhaps a point that Chardin would like to revise were he blogging among us here and now.

For better or worse, the noosphere is here, though not in exactly the way that Chardin envisioned. Our noosphere needs a network, and, increasingly, wherever we go, one is available. And, from this technological infrastructure emerges the social media superstructure, the tweeting, texting, skyping, facebooking world that, depending upon your point of view, is either a digital Tower of Babel or humanity’s last best hope.

History of Interconnectivity

The key to all this connectivity lies with radio waves, that special slice of nature’s electromagnetic pie. Since the 1860s when Maxwell proved mathematically that radio waves could propagate through free space, radio has played an increasingly important role as a conductor of communications in human affairs.

Progress, in the beginning, was slow. Think of the hapless wireless operator on the Titanic who couldn’t get anyone to tune to his distress signals. But with human ingenuity being what it is, particularly in the crucible of World War II, radio developed greatly in the 20th century. By 1970, advances were such that Professor Norman Abramson could connect radios to computers, creating the world’s first wireless network.

Called the ALOHAnet, the Hawaiian-based system used a handful of inexpensive radios and seven computers spread out over four islands to communicate with a central computer on Oahu without phone lines. This was modest technology, but, by century’s end, the work that Prof. Abramson had begun developed into the 802.11 standard, (later termed Wi-Fi), that is demonstrably changing the world around us today.

Social Media’s Effect on Society

We now live in a culture in which someone on your screen is actually physically closer to you, two dimensionally anyway, than the three dimensional people sitting around you in a packed cafe – a cafe that, apart from the clicks of the fingers on the keyboards, is eerily quiet.

So what does this technological noosphere portend for the planet? The social ramifications are through the roof. (For starters, cafe tables built for two may now be obsolete; look for tables built for one with a special tray for your laptop “date” coming to your favorite cafe very soon.) According to Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania, only a few studies so far have addressed how wireless Internet use in public and semi-public spaces has influenced social life. However, given the growing ubiquity of Wi-Fi and its demonstrated track record of erasing ever-greater chunks of “terra inconnectiva” from the planet, the time has come for that to change.

In his own study, Hampton asks the question: “Will wireless Internet use facilitate greater engagement with co-located others or encourage a form of “public privatism?” (It’s a good question and I really want to pose it to the lovely woman sitting a few feet away, but fear her in-person answer; alas, if I only knew her Facebook profile.)

Hampton’s study found results that were decidedly mixed, offering us “divergent futures for how wireless Internet use may influence social relationships.” On the one hand, there is the growing phenomenon of cafe tables seemingly built for one. This is the “public privatism” phenomenon of the quiet cafe, the packed public space in which each is an island unto him or herself in the vast sea of cyber space. And, on the other hand, there is the Middle East, the living, breathing, sometimes even bleeding laboratory of social media’s potential to facilitate greater engagement with people Hampton would refer to as “co-located others.”

social media worldIn an astounding demonstration of social media’s potential, the world has watched citizens employ social media to rally demonstrators and transfer up-to-the-minute accounts of events. Not only did the technology allow for the circumvention of traditional mass media, but use of social media in the Middle East and Africa also allowed for the proliferation of the freedom meme, the idea that the age of Arab autocracy is over and that the Middle East demands democracy. In short, social media is not just reporting the truth in the Middle East, it is actively reorganizing the truth in the Middle East.

Negative Aspects of Social Media

While there are exceptions, most of us here in the West do not view social media as quite so revolutionary. Instead, we often see the problems that can come with the technology. For example, teenagers and even adults spend huge portions of their day distracted by the virtual reality afforded by social media, a habit, sometimes even an addiction, that can adversely affect school and work. There is also, as well, the “dark side” to social media. That is, its power to amplify and broadcast human foibles. For example, how many videos are there of people, often teenagers, injuring themselves seriously while trying to do some kind of dangerous stunt as the digital cameras of their best friends roll?

The Future of Social Media

All this is just a prologue of the social media narrative to come. The technological gap that separates Marconi’s wireless at the beginning of the 20th century and Wi-Fi at its end shows no sign of abating its breathtaking pace. New and astounding technologies have emerged, and there’s no shortage of new ones on the horizon.

So, does social media in an age of ubiquitous wireless connections constitute Chardin’s concept of the noosphere? You can almost hear the great Jesuit scientist mystic nodding his head and saying something like, “yes, social media represents the organized complexity that shall usher humanity to a higher state of being.” And, because every word of it would be in mellifluous French, it might just be true.

(images by Shutterstock, a Convince & Convert sponsor)


Facebook Comments


  1. says

    It is interesting to see this post. It also comes at the right time for me. I have been conducting some observational research since February 2011 on this very topic. Observing people using technology on the move, on trains, in coffee shops, hospitals etc etc. It is a slow progress for me but I am hoping that others will make their own observations and contribute too. I had not heard of the ‘noosphere’ – interesting , I will have to do some more research on this. Thanks! You have also given me hope that I am not the only person that likes to explore our changing technology and media use by observation.

    Blog on: – would be great if you could give me some of your observations Jay.

  2. Alex Earle says

    I don’t believe wi-fi is making us anti-social. I believe wi-fi is making us less formal. It is a fallacy to say but: formality allows a degree of absolute right and wrong. In real time there is no more right then wrong, just a lot of people with less formal opinions. All these opinions hold a kernel of truth.

    • Alex Earle says

      Sorry, I just reread my above comment and realized it didn’t pertain to most of your article. Let me re-comment: I do think Chardin would acknowledge something like “…social media…that will usher humanity to a higher state of being.” I think he would also acknowledge that because of our human brain lingual-linear limits it will not be the only and final introduction; but rather it is a small piece of a 4-d holographic puzzle that constitutes our transformation to a higher consciousness.

      I say all the above mumbo-jumbo after two things that happened to me recently: (1) I hit the wall because I was doing so much daily work on the internet that I almost had a meltdown and (2) I saw a Ted talk that opened my eyes to the potential(?) future of User Interfaces with Operating Systems (

      I know I’m ranting now but just because of the very simplistic way we as humans have to specifically and rigorously examine a concept in an egocentric fashion that does not chage the fact that the universe itself cares nothing for and does not operate egocentrically.

      So, (lol) in conclusion social media is a grain of sand on a beach of variables that will ultimately transform us into a noosphere. Chardin would or would not agree:)

  3. says

    If anything, I personally think prolific wi-fi access is making me less anti-social. Before, I would sit in a coffee shop drawing or reading, and never saying more than a few words to the strangers around me. Now, even though I may not be connected to those immediately around me, I am more connected to the people I do know, at least using time spent interacting as a level of connectedness.

  4. says

    I don’t think that wi-fi is making us anti-social. I think it is opening new doors and giving us more freedom in the ways we choose to be social. By nature we are social creatures and always will be. The introductions of various technologies disrupt the way we “normally” do things and cause us to have to figure out a new kind of “normal”. Let’s face it – social media is still way new. We still are experimenting and learning from our experiments. It’s gonna be a while before things all shake out. I believe that when they do, we’ll be introduced to a new, fascinating and better world.

    • Alex Earle says

      I agree. Even if social media isn’t used in say 10 to 15 years it is definitely serving a major role: bringing greater awareness about our consciousness and that of those around us.

      Knowing that there are others quite close to your geography or vicinity sharing identical day to day dramas and that you can reach out to them with or for solutions is a far greater feeling than the “I’m in it alone and all responsibilities lie on me” survivalist mentality.

      • says

        Absolutely. It’s one of the big plusses that I think both wi-fi and social media is introducing into our world — and I think it will ultimately make it better.

    • David Murton says

      Hi David!

      Sorry, but I have to disagree here; I don’t believe that it is possible to define a new “normal” way for communicating and connecting with others. At least not without paying a price for it.

      For one, I personally believe people don’t really use social media to socialize, per se; it is more a form of entertainment than anything else, even when speaking with your friends and relatives. Examples?

      Ever notice that most of the stuff people talk about on Facebook and Twitter are things they would never really share in real life? Things like “Drinking soda, tastes good” on Twitter or “Have you seen this video?” on Facebook are the complete norm, and describe the vast majority of conversations that take place via social media.

      In my opinion, what people do on social platforms cannot ever be a substitute for socializing. It is just a substitute; something that is much closer to small-talk than it is to actually conversation. And that’s in my opinion the main problem: people are learning to substitute true and meaningful conversations, ones that can be both good and bad but which really contribute to our lives and make us happier people, with small talk.

      It’s not a problem so far as people do both. But the way things are going, it seems we are spending more time on Facebook than we are talking online. And I fail to notice anything positive about it.

      David Murton

      • says

        Hi, David,

        I have to say that in certain cases you are very much right. But not in all cases. It depends on how one uses the technology.

        On the surface social media does resemble small talk quite a bit. And certain people are satisfied with just that. But small talk can lead to much deeper conversations even if they take place in a different time or context.

        I’ve made some wonderful connections with people through Twitter, Facebook and blog commenting. But like anything else worthwhile cultivating strong connections and deep conversations takes thoughtful intention and hard work. Some people aren’t willing to do that and keep things shallow and light. Others are and can take the conversations deeper. As with most things in life you it depends on the choices you make.

  5. Tim Salam says

    We are inherently social creatures. Socializing is part of a set of mechanisms built into our fundamental behavior set to enhance our ability to survive. It is why we naturally group together and why we find things like being isolated or alone to be a threat. Because of this, we will ultimately and naturally reject anything truly anti-social as it will be construed as endangering survival.

    Is Wi-Fi making us RUDE? That’s altogether different. We’ve all observed what we consider to be rude and inconsiderate behavior due to mobile device usage. I’ve come to wonder if mobile device usage has in fact made us more rude OR if it has merely unveiled those who were already rude but weren’t as revealing about it before they had a smartphone.

    I haven’t seen us being anti-social but I have seen us grow markedly more absorbed in the minutae of those in our inner circle while simultaneously being less considerate to the general public in our immediate surroundings.

    • Alex Earle says

      I agree. It has actually allowed that informal rudeness that may have been presently previously, just not observable to manifest in an act. (checking phone during conversation, checking phone during other engagements, rude and blatant commentary on social networks) To me it almost seems like a medium to express the things before we only thought. And often times those are maybe more offensive or judgements (quick assumptions made after non consideration)

  6. says

    Have you ever tried walking up to a stranger in a coffee shop to talk to them? Not only are weird looks pretty common, plenty of people go to coffee shops not to socialize, but to get lost in the white noise hubbub that is any public space.

    While I certainly have no trouble sharing my table with someone, sharing my conversation, especially if it’s no more than small talk, often feels invasive (not to me, but surely to others).

    While I do enjoy random conversations, which usually start with me wearing Vibrams, I don’t see digital connectivity on its own as a bad thing, but rather, like anything we’ve ever done, best used in moderation or as a way to meet more people.

    The main reason I use social media is so that when I travel/leave the house, I’m able to skip the small talk with people I already know and delve into some deeper conversation.

  7. says

    Even though I work in technology, I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to social media. Recently, I’ve started paying more attention due to my schoolwork – I’m taking a personal branding class as part of my MBA program. The idea of a “noosphere” is intriguing to me, and I’m finding from my entry into social media that I’m forming connections to people I never would have otherwise. But is this a bit of self deception? Are the links I’m creating really just building a sort of self centered bubble that points to me as the center of the universe? And by extension, is this noosphere formation of like-minded people reinforcing their own ideas part of the social discourse we’re seeing at a national level?

    • says

      Those are really good questions, Chris. I think it is certainly possible that SM can be used to build a self-centered universe and reinforce our own biases. Like any tool SM can be used for positive or negative ends. It all depends on how conscious we are when we are using the tool. I think you’ll avoid much of the negative if you keep asking those questions as you continue experimenting with the tool. :-)

  8. says

    I don’t think that using Wi-Fi in cafe’s for example is any less ant-social than using a cafe’ to sketch or write in a journal. Ages ago – lol- I used to frequent cafe’s to write and would not be very thrilled when a stranger would come up to me and try and talk to me. That was my private time, but the reason I didn’t do it in my home was because the stimulation that I got by being in public helped to fuel my writing. That’s just for me. It may not the the case for those who uses their computers, IPads or phones in a Wi-Fi environment. They may be on the move and need to do some important work – that has nothing to do with a public space – it may be the only place that is available for them too get on the net. In terms of social media networking and how it is affecting our personal daily lives – i agree with @tdhurst that used in moderation I don’t see really how it can cause problems. I have encountered many positive things that have come out of social networks and for me personally have had great connections with people that i might have not otherwise had the opportunity to experience. Anything in life has it’s pro’s and con’s, in my opinion social media networking has more pro’s than con’s. Perhaps I am being biased being in the business of social media – dunno.

  9. Rick says

    Perhaps a deeper definition of being social is in order. Yes it is true that you can now have “relationships” with folks who you have never seen or with folks that in the past you may nave easily lost track of. The question is whether that is being social or not. I think the tools are best used when they ultimately lead to real dialogue and discussion. After you graduate school do you really want to be forced to keep in contact with people with whom you have less and less in common with? An interesting question but now you have the ability to keep them on your friends list on facebook and keep track of just how much you have grown apart.

  10. Trapp says

    Nice article, David. I did want to point out the (very common) misuse of the term “anti-social” in your article’s title, though. To be anti-social has nothing to do with how “non-social” someone is; the term, borrowed from psychology, refers to being “anti-society,” or, more specifically, anti-society’s norms and rules. So neglecting to socialize because of one’s social media use isn’t an anti-social act; using the internet to cripple a large internet service provider, however, would be. Just sayin’.

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