Technology Is Promoting the New Intimacy

Does technology make us more indifferent to one another? Are cell phones, e-mail, and Facebook responsible for bringing us together or putting a wedge between us and our loved ones? According to a recent study by Tech Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent, technology is actually promoting intimacy. Check out what she had to say at the Oxford TEDglobal conference earlier this year.

What I found most fascinating from a marketing standpoint is that most people use their technology infrastructure – cellular phone, texting, instant messaging, e-mail, etc. – to communicate with a handful of loved ones. That’s it! Consider the stories Broadbent shares about the families who gather together via webcam for a meal, or the friends and coules who communicate regularly from work via e-mail and text. Of course we all do it, and technology can bring us closer to our loved ones. I am in ongoing contact with my spouse via text and cell phone. In fact, she now uses her iPhone to stay in constant contact with her daughter, who is a college freshman this year 3,000 miles away, using text, e-mail, Facebook, and, of course, phone calls. It’s almost as thought my stepdaughter was still home every night (and a far cry from the weekly call I made from the payphone to my parents in the days before cellular technology).

This demonstrates man’s infinite ability to adapt new ideas and new technologies for the things he cares about most. However, from a marketing standpoint, I have to wonder if this revelation undermines the value of social media to reach customers and prospects. If people only communicate with a handful of close friends on Facebook or Twitter, are the rest of us shouting in the wind, trying to get their attention? I don’t think so, but we do run the risk of devolving into so much white noise as people pursue the more intimate conversations that matter to them. Establishing online intimacy with strangers is difficult, but if we understand that the Web has become a tool to communicate both in an intimate way as well as with a larger universe, it helps us better understand how to reach the people who matter to us.

I also have to wonder about the impact it has on how we separate our personal and private lives. Broadbent talks about class distinction and our separation from the workplace. We seem to have come full circle. In medieval times, the merchants lived above their shop or place of business, the farmers lived on the land, and there was no thought of separating your work and your personal life. That came later with the modern concept of cities and suburbs. Our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers, used to travel from home to the workplace and back again, isolating themselves for eight to 16 hours in an office, or a factory, of a field, where they toiled to support their families. With the aid of technology, home and workplace have converged once again, or at least grown closer together. The more affluent use technology to carry their workplace with them. I work from home, and my office is my laptop and my cell phone, which means I carry my place of work with me. (I often joke that the great thing about working for yourself is you keep your own hours – any 24 hours in the day you choose.) Those who don’t use the technology are the commuters who transport themselves from home to workplace and back again, forging boundaries (both real and artificial) between their professional and personal lives.

And I have to wonder about the impact all this has on organizations. From my recent work with FaceTime Communications, I have a deeper understanding of the challenges that IT managers face in trying to contain personal conversations on public networks. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype are pervasive, and defy many of the conventions of IT managerial control. If you can access the Internet from your office computer, then you can chat online with you boyfriend, your girlfriend, your mother, and completely bypass most enterprise security measures. Companies can choose to block access, or try to control it. I have a client that uses Barracuda to control employee network access, which means when I work on site I can’t be productive because I can’t access any of the social networking sites or online tools I use for the client. Locking the door isn’t the solution. Instead, you need to find a way to help your workers feel more connected to home in order to increase productivity. If you control the online conversation rather than blocking it, you can prevent abuses and data leaks while letting workers connect with their loved ones, which helps everyone.

There are some important insights here as to how technology is transforming human interaction. What are your views? Can you build intimacy online? Share your thoughts.

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