The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication


The other day I was chatting with the parents of some incoming first-year students, and the topic turned to the ways technology has changed since we were in college. One dad bemoaned the increasing preference for texting over telephone conversations (not to mention face-to-face conversations.)

He went on to point out the dehumanizing effects of social media–a viewpoint that many experts agree with. In fact, heavy Facebook use has been linked with higher rates of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in college students. Yikes!

In their article On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Victoria Wang et al define  a phatic technology as one that “serves to establish, develop and maintain human relationships.” An outcome of this relationship is the formation of a social community (44). If that mom and I had more time (and if I weren’t trying so hard to be agreeable), I might have pointed out some of the ways that texting, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social tools have actually given us additional chances to maintain community and the human touch, especially from a distance.

Because I work in technology, I know all too well that social media has its pitfalls. And I have seen enough cat videos to last for three lifetimes. Yet social media has also enabled me to keep in touch with family on both coasts, receive urgent news instantly, and to experience a sense of community with colleagues, friends, and relatives who may never meet each other in person. (I won’t pretend to speak for traditional-aged college students, who may experience both the need to connect and the need to strike out on their own.)

Writing in Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design, Frank Vetere et al found that online phatic interactions fell into four categories:

  1. maintaining an existing relationship
  2. initiating a conversation
  3. developing a new relationship
  4. being polite and observing social norms (183).

It is this fourth category, the idea of being polite, that critics seem to focus on the most. Can it be that people understand the rules of “Twittiquette,” but they have in the meantime lost their ability to function in polite society? For example, in a humorous video treatment, YouTube user evmoneytv pokes fun at our apparent struggles with understanding how to wait in line (“How to stand in line”). We clearly need help relearning our manners.

In fact, as Frank Vetere and his co-authors point out, phatic systems are designed precisely to convey significance and meaning by taking the shortest path possible — cutting the line, if you will (178). The real differentiator for modern phatic technologies is not rejection of good manners, but an emphasis on speed. We can complete social transactions almost instantaneously, compared to some of our older methods (like letter-writing). We shorten our messages or leave out some of the details in order to keep up the pace. For some of us, the speed adds a sense of anxiety as we try to stay connected to our communities. And when we’re anxious, we can forget our manners.

Certainly we feel wistful about the joy of reading a beautifully-written letter or the thrill of hearing the voice of a loved one, but let’s not assume that new technologies completely eliminate the human touch. Remember what your mama taught you, and follow the Golden Rule–we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go along.


evmoneytv (2010).  How to stand in line.

Gibbs, M. (2009). The first 10 rules of Twittiquette.

Markopoulos, P., De Ruyter, B., Mackay, W., eds (2009). Awareness Systems : Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design. (2013). Is Facebook Ruining Our Social Skills? [Infographic] .

V. Wang, J. V. Tucker, T. E. Rihll (2011). On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Technology in Society, Volume 33, Issues 1–2. (