The World Wide Web, celebrating its 30th anniversary today, is one of the most — if not the most — powerful tools launched in the last 50 years, if not ever. The Internet helps us connect across cities, states, countries and worlds; it bridges gaps and speeds up time in good and bad ways.
But let’s face one important fact: the Internet is not a suitable replacement for face-to-face interactions. When we look someone else in the eye, we see so much more than a face.
Communicating through Skype or FaceTime or any of the other virtual communication tools the Internet spawned attempts to overcome this obstacle. But lag time and being on a screen, not to mention the ability to mute or go without video, makes us prone to distraction and impedes us from achieving the kind of results spontaneous discussion sparks. How many times have you been in a face-to-face discussion at a bar, restaurant, grocery store, sporting event and made a valuable connection? I have yet to be able to do that on the Internet because everything is categorized well, which kills any chance of serendipity.
Face-to-face doesn’t just give us someone else’s reactions, it invites them. Our eyes plead with someone else to show us what they are thinking through their face in a way I have yet to master on a video conference call. When I see your face, I can see when you bored; your eyes go elsewhere. I sense confusion because your eyes and facial expressions give it away. Armed with this valuable information, I can react and change course.
Try changing the course of the conversation in a good way after you sent an email to someone that they misinterpreted in a way you didn’t even consider possible. Apologies and restatements only can do so much.
When I am speaking to or training groups, I often talk about the power of eye contact. I demonstrate its power by playing the staring game, where I stare a person in the eye for as long as it takes for them to look away. I have never lost in probably 200 attempts. Not just because I played the game with my dog Dabney and wore him down for years, but because I am not uncomfortable in that space when you are staring intently at another person. I actually welcome it. Maybe it’s the old newspaper reporter in me that knows when that space exists, the other person is apt to fill it with something valuable.
I fear I am alone. A growing number of people seem to find this prolonged eye contact uncomfortable (even if I warn them that it’s coming).
That muscle that allows us to look inside ourselves and others while staring appears to atrophied in so many people. Or, and it scares me to admit it, they never had the chance to develop this muscle.
I was thinking about this shift while staring at my new great-niece Leah last Friday night. She was being fussy, which troubles me since I was holding her. But when I looked into her three-week-old eyes, she calmed. She liked it. I know: She can’t focus yet and she probably was catching the light off my glasses. But still. She didn’t look away. She kept that eye contact.
Few of us want or can hold that kind of attention. If anything, the Internet has hurt our attention spans. More than two decades ago, teaching a college class involved standing in the front of the room and lecturing – and perhaps drawing on the chalkboard. Today, teaching a college class is more akin to hosting a late-night talk show – introduce the topic, get feedback, shift gears to a PowerPoint, start an activity, a little more discussion, then a breakout session, followed by a hand’s-on activity, then a wrap-up. If any segment exceeds eight minutes, you’re in trouble. (At the risk of divulging my teaching trade secrets, extra points for pop culture references or making anything connect to an episode of “Friends.”)
Like most people, I use the Internet every day in important ways. I would struggle to live without it. But I know I would struggle more if I couldn’t look the people who matter to me in the eye and tell them something important or receive important feedback.
I hope that when the Internet reaches its 40th anniversary, we will have moderated its use. We should focus on what it provides us that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And not cat videos, old episodes of “Speed Racer” and 24/7 shopping. We should continue to use it as the most powerful research tool ever and to bridge distances when no other option exists.
But whenever and wherever the option exists, we should never ever allow the Internet to replace face-to-face communication. I wish I could see you nodding in agreement.