One of the questions I often get asked by journalists, who know I’m interested in the psychology of technology, is how social media like Facebook and Twitter change the way we communicate.  Being journalists, they usually want me to say that we can no longer interact properly with each other thanks to technology. 

I know some brain researchers have made some scary claims about social media but all the evidence I have seen suggests that it is just another way of keeping in touch.

 The world before Facebook…

When I was a researcher in the pre-internet days, it was common practice to write (yes, real letters) to authors of interesting papers in the published literature asking for a free reprint of their paper. Most journals offered authors 50 copies of their papers for such purposes. Persuading popular authors to make you one of the 50 was a challenge.

As technology progressed, the photocopier allowed us to cut out the author and simply copy papers. It was common to overhear young researchers discussing new findings, replying to a question ‘have you read …’ by saying ‘yes, I’ve got a copy of it’.  In the new world of photocopying, having a copy was the functional equivalence of reading a paper. In practice, one read the abstract, looked at any figures and checked the references but maybe never actually got round to reading the whole text, so maybe not really equivalent, except in the researcher’s head.

And now ….

I wonder whether Facebook friends have become functionally equivalent to ‘real’ friends? Some people seem to regard sending out friend requests the way I used to send out reprint requests. Just as I never read some of these reprints once I got them, I guess I have no intention of doing more with some of my Facebook friends than acknowledging that I recognise their name.

The same common sense rules of behaviour apply

Technology does change the way we do things, often without us even noticing. I read recently about two young girls in Australia, who were trapped in hole and apparently decided that updating their Facebook page was a higher priority than calling for help. Luckily, one of their friends was online and alerted the rescue services for them. A rescuer said how much better it would have been if they had phoned directly. He was probably right in this case, but for the girls, Facebook was the natural way for them to send a message to the outside world.

And we do need to be careful about how we use this new power. I was interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland this week about a girl who had twittered details of a sleep-over at her grandparents’ house in Aberdeen. 150 drunken teenagers later, the house was a wreck, and the teenager wasn’t much better.

I reminded listeners that using social media carelessly was not a wise thing to do. I doubt the girl would have put up a poster in the roughest part of town saying that her grannie’s house was empty that weekend, but people often have a different attitude on social media sites.

It seems to me a bit unfair to blame social media for the problem. It may have been the way lots of people heard about the party but smashing up a house is just vandalism, and can hardly be blamed on the internet!  But as they say, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story…