Has globalisation of technology trivialised conversations?

Social media’s primary purpose was to facilitate effortless communication across borders and time zones

By Gopika Nair

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Published: Sun 26 Dec 2021, 10:18 PM

In early 2021, the tech space was buzzing with the kind of excitement that is only reserved for something new, something shiny and something that promises to be truly revolutionary.

That was Clubhouse — the social media app that positions itself as a “new type of social network based on voice”.

While images and videos reign supreme on Instagram and TikTok, Clubhouse’s goal was to foster stronger connections among people by means of audio. And the premise worked. Soon after its launch, Clubhouse exploded in popularity, become the fastest-growing social media app in history.

Now that we’re in the homestretch of 2021, Clubhouse has been relegated to a “pandemic fad”. The app is still trudging along, but most of its users have abandoned it. In the months that followed Clubhouse’s dramatic rise to popularity, its monthly downloads fell from 9 million in February to 920,000 in November. Part of the reason is that the app is facing stiff competition from major tech players, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter launched Spaces, while Facebook introduced a short-form Soundbites feature. In an effort to fight back, Clubhouse removed its invitation-only requirement and became available on Android. Still, Clubhouse’s future remains uncertain after a year that saw giant tech companies adopt some significant changes.

It might be safe to say that save for October 4, when Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook were inaccessible for hours, 2021 was the year nobody could escape the snares of technology. How could we when the small icons within our phones were snowballing with frequent changes?

Instagram’s Reels continued to replicate some of TikTok’s core features by introducing a new remix option, text-to-speech effects and a vertical feed. Twitter launched its Blue subscription service in addition to Spaces, the Clubhouse copycat that allowed users to have live audio conversations on the platform.

TikTok did what it does best and appealed to the younger crowd by introducing new playlist and livestream features, among others. Facebook sought to undergo the most drastic transformation of all with its rebrand to Meta and a shift towards a “metaverse-first” outlook.

Thanks to the globalisation of technology, everyone everywhere now has a voice and something to say through a medium of their choosing, be it audio, video or text. And yet, because of the globalisation of technology, these conversations don’t seem to matter much at all.

Social media’s primary purpose was to facilitate effortless communication across borders and time zones. At that time, when Facebook messages, AIM chats and MSN Messenger were some of the popular players, people lamented that technology had made phone calls and even face-to-face interactions redundant to a degree. But now, the rapid advancements in technology have more or less destroyed the quality of human interaction.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and the social restrictions that followed, modern life had made us all lonely. The cause can’t be attributed to social media alone, but it certainly played a role.

Young people, in particular, have grown hyper-aware about their daily interactions outside social media. Some of us can’t even seem to form genuine connections with the people we see on a daily basis; instead, we turn to apps, such as Bumble BFF, to meet up with strangers and try to kindle some semblance of a friendship. The connections we do have are next to impossible to maintain.

Most interactions are a variation of “Let’s catch up soon!” that goes unfulfilled, while others are simply a text that arrives once a year, which reads: “Hi, I saw that it was our Facebook friend anniversary today and that made me think of you.” We learn about graduations, job changes, weddings and babies through Reels, TikToks and Stories. In essence, we’ve forgotten how to reach out and talk to each other about the things that matter.

Social media may or may not be dumbing us down, but there’s no denying that it has diluted our conversations. Moreover, when everyone is fighting for a space to be heard, no one has the means or ability to listen, and even if they do, social media has made it easy to be selective about what you hear.

The dying art of conversation makes a small appearance in Netflix’s recent satire Don’t Look Up, in which two astronomers try to warn the world about a comet that’s going to destroy Earth. Their efforts are thwarted as the existence of the comet becomes a hotly contested political issue. Despite scientific warnings, one side simply does not believe in the doomsday scenario.

At one point, an exasperated Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) asks: “What the hell happened to us? How do we even talk to each other? What’ve we done to ourselves? How do we fix it?”

Of course, there’s no real way to fix it, but perhaps the only solution is to embrace the joy of missing out and seeing technology for what it is — an enabler of connections, not the pandering ground for fragile egos.

— gopika@khaleejtimes.com

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