Friendship and People Skills in a Social Media World

By Eric Segall

Mike has once again graciously allowed me to use this blog to write about something other than constitutional law or the Supreme Court (and who doesn't need a break from the news?). Today, I want to talk about friendship and people skills in the age of social media.

A few years ago, a good friend was watching football on a sunny Sunday afternoon and noticed that his 16-year-old son had been in his room all day despite the great weather.  He yelled up to his son, “what are you doing up there?” His son answered, “socializing.”

I have always been someone who prefers being around a few close and intimate friends rather than a large number of casual acquaintances. I detest cocktail parties, receptions, large gatherings, and virtually any occasion requiring people to stand around and make small talk amidst loud music and abundant alcohol. Give me an intimate dinner party, or movie and drinks afterwards with a few close friends, any day.

I mention all of that because I have been amazed at how much I have enjoyed connecting with people over a number of different social media platforms. I try to take an hour-long walk every day. I usually spend this time on Twitter arguing with folks with quite different political views than my own or commiserating with the like-minded. One example of the former is a lawyer named Evan Bernick who is a libertarian and strong proponent of judicial engagement of economic legislation. I am a strong advocate of judicial deference across the board but especially for economic legislation. I have never met Evan in person yet I feel I know him reasonably well. I have a good idea which of my tweets will make him mad, which he will find funny, and which will make him respond. Although we disagree often and sometimes caustically, I feel that we have a healthy mutual respect and that we listen carefully to each other’s views. I genuinely like him and hope he feels the same.

Are Evan and I “friends?” Can you really be friends with someone you have never met in person? Hold that question.

Although I spend most of my social media time on Twitter, I am also on Facebook where I have reconnected with a number of people I knew in high school but have not shared the same physical space with for over forty years. In addition, there are a number of law professors I have only met once or twice (or even never) who I “converse” with regularly on Facebook. I enjoy these interactions and find them rewarding both personally and professionally.

Finally, I’ve been working with Mike now for several years on this Blog. We have been in the same room only once. Yet, by engaging together on a weekly basis in a common enterprise that goes out into the world, I feel we have a connection and bond though I’d be hard pressed to explain what that really means or frankly how deep it goes (I’d like to think reasonably deep).

There are undeniably good things about all of these social media relationships. I get to work and connect with people all over the world and these conversations are often helpful to my writing and teaching. Without this Blog, which wouldn’t exist without social media, there’s no way I would know Mike as well as I think I do, and without Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to share stories and pictures about my family, my career, and my hobbies (in that order) with people from my past, present and future.

Yet, I have a few serious concerns. Has all this online interaction to some degree numbed my need for what I will call genuine human interaction? As I mentioned earlier, I am no major partier but I have throughout my life been acutely aware of my desire to be with close friends on a regular basis. I used to call my out-of-town friends on my long walks but now I find myself engaging in Twitter and Facebook conversations much more often. Or, probably worse, I sometimes passively observe other people’s conversations and ruminations. That is human interaction one or sometimes several steps removed.

Another pitfall to these new social media relationships is, because they are ongoing, sometimes my Twitter and Facebook conversations continue even after I am physically present with my family and friends. I’d like to say that I habitually turn off my phone in those situations but I don’t do that anywhere near enough. I’m willing to guess, neither do you. I have little doubt that social media makes me less “present” than I used to be (at least with people in the same room).

I also worry about how all of this affects my three daughters, ages 26, 9, and 8. The social pressure I felt in my pre-internet middle and high school years feels like a trifle compared to what my eldest daughter dealt with during her schooling. Gossip and scandal obviously fly faster and further now than ever before. I don’t think my two younger daughters will have any real sense of privacy. Nevertheless, online relationships are not going away and if they are inevitable, maybe the more practice the better. I want my children to develop good people skills but I don’t even know what that means anymore.

Speaking of people skills, my wife used to work for Accenture and most of her meetings were virtual. Accenture, a multi-billion-dollar company, doesn’t even have a home office. From what I can gather, putting together a successful PowerPoint Deck is now as essential a skill for up and coming executives as traditional “people skills.” The two are not mutually exclusive of course but my guess is a strong social media presence may be as important as in-person contact for career success in many fields.

And, returning to the main point of this piece, it is much harder to make and keep friends when working from home, which many of my colleagues now do on a regular basis. Since we spend so much time working from home, isn’t it natural to seek comfort and friendships from our online communities? But are we replacing real connections and substantial relationships with ones that feel familiar but are actually quite transient? All of which brings me back to my twitter friend Evan. I enjoy our constitutional law battles and I’m also mindful that others seem to find them, at least at times, enlightening (and I’m sure at times annoying). When we reach common ground, or respectfully agree to disagree, it feels good, like having a friend. But am I, are we, taking the easy way out? Is this just a safer emotional space and does it leave me with fewer, or at least different, needs when dealing with my physically present family, friends and colleagues? All I can say for now is that the answer is of course a healthy balance between the in-person and the online. How one strikes that balance, however, does feel quite elusive.