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'Relating Through Technology' more important than ever

Wed, 07/08/2020

LAWRENCE — A new book offers key insights on how to sustain a healthy social life through technology during COVID-19. 

Jeffrey Hall, University of Kansas professor of communication studies, had no idea his book “Relating Through Technology” (Cambridge University Press) would be released during a worldwide pandemic, but its focus on the intersection between offline and online communication seems more relevant now than ever.

The book explores one of the most critical questions of our time: Does the vast connectivity afforded by mobile computing and social media lead to more personal connection with one another?

One thing is certain: The pandemic fundamentally reshuffled our normal patterns of communication.

“Based on the best available evidence, prior to the pandemic, two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face,” Hall said. “Many of them were routine conversations at work or in communities as people went about their everyday lives. Sadly, those types of conversations are not coming back soon.”

In March, as COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed and those opportunities for routine face-to-face contact shut down, it was clear Americans turned to media to connect. The rate of voice calls doubled their peak traffic from 2019, the length of calls increased by one-third, the use of Zoom quadrupled, and social media use increased, particularly on laptop and desktop computers.

“I’m not at all surprised that people turned toward those media,” Hall said.

“Relating Through Technology” argues that you can only understand how people use personal media by understanding people’s offline and online relationships.

“Throughout history, relationships have endured despite physical distance,” Hall said, “but never before have people had to adjust their patterns so quickly and had so many options to choose from to do so.”

But just as quickly, people began to realize the limitations of computer-mediated interactions.

“Soon after lockdown began, I began hearing people talk about getting Zoom fatigue. I was intrigued because the book explored that very topic,” Hall said.

“Relating Through Technology” argues – based on original research that Hall conducted — that certain modes of communication lend themselves to certain types of interaction.

By comparing over 4,000 social interactions from hundreds of people at randomly selected moments of their days over a week, Hall found that two things set video calls apart: First, they were more energy-intensive, and second, people felt lonelier after they were over. Although Zoom has been a lifesaver in education and business settings, it’s a reminder of physical distance on a personal level.

“Although video calls mirror many of the benefits of face-to-face conversation, they also require a great deal of attention and focus, with few natural breaks in either eye contact or in duration,” Hall said.

But why did traditional phone calls soar in frequency and length during the COVID-19 lockdown?

“Voice calls have long been reserved for engaged, intimate conversations, especially about important topics,” Hall said.

Such calls tend to be reserved for close partners and make us feel more connected to one another, he said. “People need to replace what is lost.”

“Relating Through Technology” poses other important questions, such as whether social media use is bad for you and whether it displaces face-to-face interaction. It reviews both the good and the bad of technology from a balanced perspective in order to understand the role of mobile and social media in our relational lives. 

Will these new patterns persist, if and when something like normalcy returns? Some of them, like intentionally reaching out to far-flung friends and family, certainly should, according to Hall.

In the final chapter of “Relating Through Technology,” Hall suggests that we must choose to routinely and intentionally keep in touch.

“As advanced as technology gets,” he said, “it doesn’t matter unless you use it in a way that nourishes your relationships.”

Photo: The cover of Professor Jeffrey Hall’s new book. Credit: Courtesy Cambridge University Press



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