Organising a night out with my university mates is a strenuous task. The most common excuse for not attending is, "I'm so sorry, I am just too busy. I haven't even started the essay due on Monday and I'm so behind in readings". Yet, my friends and I will always spare about half an hour each day to chat on Facebook. Making video calls to friends overseas using Skype is another popular pastime.
Surprisingly, this reduction in socialising is not only limited to my studious friends. According to Jessica Irvine in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has found that most Australians are socialising less. In 1992, Australians were spending 77 minutes per day socialising. This dropped to 10 minutes in 2006. On the flip side, there has been a 27 minute increase per day in time spent on audio/visual media from 1992 to 2006. Particularly, the use of computers – accessing the Internet for games and other activities – increased by 15 minutes a day between 1997 and 2006.
Over the years, this drastic reduction in socialising but increase of media usage, especially using the Internet, makes me question whether the ABS' concept of socialising needs to change. The Macquarie Dictionary Online explains that to socialise is 'to be sociable and mix freely, as at a social gathering'. Many activities on the Internet involve engaging with others. That is why websites such as Facebook and Twitter are known as 'social' media because they are based on the exchange of communication. So perhaps the ABS' figures should not be read as Australians are reducing their socialising. Rather the medium for socialising has changed from the physical (i.e. face to face) to the technological (i.e. online chat).
In lectures, many students using laptops vigorously type on their keyboards. You might have thought it was for writing notes. Instead, they are communicating with friends on Facebook chat. Most evenings I too go online to chat with my pals. For me, that is socialising because I am interacting with other humans albeit not face-to-face but as if I am catching up with my friends over coffee. Additionally, Skype's video messaging service is practically face-to-face because you can see the face or faces of the people you are video calling over the computer screen. You could have a slumber party without being in the same room. Now there is Google+, another social networking site that I have yet to explore, where users can video 'hangout' with up to nine friends watching YouTube videos together. If only the popcorn could be passed around.
As aforementioned, there is an increase in playing computer games. While it is assumed that online gaming is a solitary activity, in fact many popular games such as RuneScape and the children's site Club Penguin are multiplayer ones. They facilitate interactions between users and require the forming of relationships between players in order to achieve goals. World of Warcraft, a multiplayer online game with over 11 million international subscribers, includes an instant messaging and voice communication function. Evidently, World of Warcraft is not just a game but also a socialising interface. Even though the players do not physically interact, they mix together by sharing information, thoughts or emotions.
Stephanie Rosenbloom recently wrote an article in The New York Times about people finding love through the World of Warcraft game. Players go on virtual dates. This then translates into real life dates and even marriage in certain cases. Gamers had found that expressing their feelings through words online was easier than in person. So technology had helped people in socialising. And if people are making relationships on gaming sites, think about the numerous online dating sites that are specifically designed for seeking a partner. There are also plenty of other virtual communities including message boards and chat rooms for people to connect with others.
Currently, the ABS specifies socialising as having interaction with people by visiting cultural and entertainment venues, going to community and sporting events or attending religious rituals. This suggests that socialising requires people to be in physical contact to interact. But many social events have moments of no communication. For example, when you attend the theatre with friends, does the time spent silently watching the performance count towards the socialising time?
It is hard to draw a fine line between when people are socialising or not. This dilemma also arises online – when are people just surfing the net or when are they actually interacting? An hour on Facebook could be spent sending messages, looking at photos as well as having an online chat. Facebook chat is the only communicating device, yet, how would people track the time spent only on chatting? It would be difficult for the ABS to collect accurate statistics on when a person is socialising.
When I asked my mother whether online interaction is socialising, she replied, "Facebook chat and all those online games are not socialising. People should be going out and talking with other people because only when they see others' actions and expressions they can truly understand how someone is feeling." Hence, understanding what socialising means is also affected by personal interpretation.
Technology, mainly the Internet, has provided a new arena for socialising so that people can communicate and interact as if in the real world. Furthermore, describing what constitutes as socialising becomes another conundrum. Next time the ABS collates data on Australians socialising, it needs to delineate its interpretation of socialising and make clear which medium it is taking place in.
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