I ride the Paris metro on a daily basis, and lately I have been having the distinct impression that Paris is slowly but surely being taken over by zombies. Forget about eye contact, there are growing indications that the text-induced multitudes that I see frantically texting, scrolling, tweeting, and squinting are completely devoid of any iota of recognition that they are actually in the physical presence of other living organisms, and that includes the mice. That can get very tedious when one needs to squeeze past a couple text-crazed passengers to reach a free window seat. 'Hello, anybody home?' The logical conclusion is that all this portable technology is undermining our capacity to be human, to acknowledge the social world around us. Yet, aha, here is the paradox, because after all, while the hordes of apparent texting, tweeting, etc. automatons are ignoring us in favor of their portable devices, they are connecting with somebody. All this leading up to that timeless question that people have been asking since day 1, Internet age: 'Do social media make us more or less social?'

No less than Malcolm Gladwell, in his article, 'Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,' and Mark W. Schaeffer, in his blog post 'Is Social Media Creating a Generation of Cowards' have argued that social media inhibit human interaction and make people less sociable.  On the research side, a widely-cited, early study by Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University famously found a variety of negative effects associated with Internet use on a measures of social involvement and psychological well-being among Pittsburgh (USA) families in 1995-1996.  This, they contended, supported their fears that Internet usage replaces close social interaction and thereby increases isolation.  Just around the time that social scientists began to rush out of their cubicles screaming, 'We're all doomed!', some nitpickers started to identify some methodological flaws in the Internet=loneliness study (e.g., the nature of the recruitment process led to the selection of research participants who were very likely to experience a decrease in social contacts and community involvement during the course of the study, even without Internet access).  Lo and behold, in a follow-up paper published three years later, Kraut et al. (2001) reported that the negative effects identified in their earlier study actually dissipated over time and that another of their studies revealed a variety of positive effects of Internet use on communication, social involvement, and personal well-being, regardless of age.

Now added to the mix is research just released by ExactTarget and CoTweet.  Based on an assessment of data accrued from ExactTarget's subscribers, followers, and fans, consumers’ increased usage of social media directly corresponds to more face-to-face interactions.  As illustrated in the following graph, the study revealed that Internet users 'who are becoming more active on Facebook and Twitter are also interacting with friends in “real” (not virtual) settings more often', which flies in the face of the popularly held contention that social media use makes people less social.

Well, contrary to ExtraTarget's claim, one study does not make a myth bust in my personal opinion, especially given that ExtraTarget has kept the detail of its methodology and sample largely under wraps.  However, the evidence is building.  People won't be putting away their portable devices, so the impact of our growing synergy/singularity with technology on an individual level certainly warrants continued analysis.  In the meantime, my hat goes off to Apple for its new Type n Walk iPhone app.  If only there was something we could do about those metro zombies.

(And more French mass transit strikes is not exactly what I have in mind.)