Smartphones do not make us anti-social

Editor's note: Today we welcome guest blogger Deirdré Straughan, a technology adoption strategist in Ericsson's Cloud & IP business unit. Deirdré has been communicating online since 1982 and has worked in technical writing and editing, training, UI design, marketing, open source community management, events, social media, video and more:

Lady watching mobile in public transport

An ironically popular theme in social media is that smartphones have made people “antisocial.” This meme is often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people standing or sitting near each other, all engrossed in their phones, with text about how “before smartphones, people actually talked to each other in public.”

Actually, they didn’t.

Over the last 30+ years, I have been a daily commuter on crowded public transport in London, Washington DC, Milan, and San Francisco. During the BC (before cell phones) era, I observed other commuters reading, listening to music, staring into space, or sleeping. In all those times and places, I rarely saw people striking up conversation with random strangers.

I usually don’t do that, either. Even for an extrovert, interacting with strangers takes energy. By the time I’m heading home each day, I need alone time, not more energy-draining interaction. As for the morning commute, how many of us want to chat with strangers when we’re still half asleep or mentally gearing up for the workday ahead?

Besides, what are we all doing on those smartphones? Much of the time we’re … interacting with other people: Responding to e-mails. Exchanging texts with family to organize the day or the evening. Catching up with friends via Facebook, and news via Twitter. Smartphones allow us to extend both the time and the range of our communications, into hours and places that we formerly spent incommunicado (such as trains and buses).

There is scope for smartphones to improve our lives in other ways as well. Ericsson ConsumerLab has done an interesting study, gauging public interest (in nine global cities) in some potential new uses of smartphones. In the future, you might be heads down in your phone because you’re checking the least-crowded way home during today’s rush hour, or looking up where a particular office is inside a large building. Or you might be checking your own health parameters, such as heart rate, while your phone reminds you to stand up straight!

So… let’s get past the idea that cell phones make people antisocial and the false nostalgia that everyone was so “friendly” before we had them. If a friend you are with is checking their phone instead of talking to you, then that is indeed impolite. But, when you’re alone in a crowd of strangers, there’s nothing wrong with exploring your online world online and making connections that weren’t possible before. That’s what the Networked Society is all about.

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