About two weeks ago, I had lunch at a culinary school in Makati City. I was seated somewhere between the main door and the buffet table. From where I sat, I could clearly see the main bar and the staff behind it — as well as the school computer, which was, the whole time I was there for lunch, logged on to the social media application Facebook.
As a patron, I didn’t really mind the staff being on FB since it didn’t affect the food quality or the level of service given to me at the time. It was a lunch buffet, after all, so I served myself by standing up to get my own food. Other than the occasional request for a glass of water to drink, or napkins for wiping, or the bill to pay, I didn’t really need the staff to wait on me.
I had a similar experience last month in a restaurant in Baguio City. The restaurant computer was likewise logged on to FB the whole time I was there for dinner with my family. In both occasions, in Baguio and in Makati, I was seated behind the staff but facing the computer screen, and could clearly see that while on duty and during restaurant hours, staff were busy on social media.
Maybe some establishments don’t really mind staff doing FB as long as it doesn’t interfere with the work, and customers don’t complain. I am uncertain if doing FB was actually part of the job. It could be; I didn’t ask. But I suspect it wasn’t, and could only wonder how much of staff time and attention, as well as company resources, were spent on social media while at work.
Perhaps this trend is inevitable. We are in the era of “data connection,” and one can assume that access will eventually further improve and broaden, and perhaps become cheaper. More services are now becoming available online. Even retail, as well as financial transactions, have transitioned. Public services have also moved towards electronic rather manual transactions.
Just by looking around one will realize that people nowadays are just too busy looking down at their mobile phones and fiddling with it, wherever they are. It makes no difference whether they are driving, riding a motorcycle, or crossing the street, or having a meal with other people. Even during meetings, attention is split between “being” in the meeting and a mobile device.
Mobile phones have truly evolved, with fewer calls being made, it seems. What used to be a mobile or smartphone’s primary function, to make and receive calls, has become irrelevant, if not a nuisance. People now prefer messaging to calls, and “interacting” with others through “social media” rather than seeing them in person. Even e-mail is no longer as prevalent.
I make no judgment whether this is good or bad for people, in general. On one hand, with social media, we can communicate and “keep in touch” even with people that are physically very far from us. One can be halfway across the globe and still maintain a “presence” in his own home country. And unless you indicate where you are exactly, people wouldn’t know where you are.
On the other hand, I am sure something is bound to give, or get lost, as people opt to interact more through electronic means rather than in person. Good manners, right conduct, etiquettes, social graces, and the capacity and ability to engage in conversation, or to host and attend social functions appear to have been impacted by the advent of the social media age.
Then, there is my concern with respect to its impact on labor productivity. The Philippine Star, citing a mid-August global survey by market research company Global Web Index, reported that “the Philippines is the leading country that spends the most time on social media globally” — an average of four hours and five minutes daily. The other 44 countries in the survey averaged only two hours and 23 minutes daily on social networks and messaging.
In the top five, the report noted, were the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, Nigeria, and Argentina. The Philippines was reported to have been topping the list for seven years, and over the seven-year period, the average time spent by Filipinos on social media has gone up from over two hours daily in 2012 to over four hours daily in 2016-2018.
“A look at the trended data here suggests that we might be approaching saturation in social media consumption,” Global Web Index was quoted as saying in its report. “This is likely a result of many internet users having a better awareness of the time they spend looking at screens, as well as the perceived negative effects associated with social media usage, and wanting a digital detox as a result. This trend has continued.”
The report added that majority of the social media users across the world are aged between 16 to 24 years old, and that 72% said they used social media while they were watching television. “The importance of messaging apps to this demographic is a key reason behind this, as is the centrality of smartphones to their digital lives,” the report said.
“But the effects aren’t down to age alone. Even among 16-24s, certain markets primarily in Asia and Latin America stand out for their occupation with social media. Particularly notable are Argentina (4:17), the Philippines (4:16) and Colombia (4:12),” the report added. Note how all these three countries share a Latin or Hispanic, and Catholic, background.
To an extent, I suppose it is cultural. Filipinos are sociable people. We crave the need to keep in touch, to be part of the conversation, to be updated on what is happening with others, to be always in the know, and to have a sense of belonging and community. We also have extended families, and the penchant for big gatherings, reunions, and other social interactions.
But all this seems to be transitioning or migrating to an electronic platform rather than a physical one. And by keeping in touch “electronically” through social media, we have moved away from physically seeing people and interacting with them directly. The desire or longing for kinship in a physical way is actually diminished by the almost constant and instantaneous interaction online.
I have no data, nor studies, nor research to back this assertion. Perhaps this is simply a misimpression, on my part. But I do get the sense that social media, and electronic interactions may have more detrimental than beneficial effect on us socially, in the long run. We are now in the era of multitasking — using social media while doing something else — and divided attention. Do we not see these as chipping away at our humanity, bit by bit?
We have people with one eye on work and another on FB; watching TV while doing social media; having a meal with family while messaging friends electronically; crossing the street looking down on a mobile screen and ears plugged with earphones; riding a motorcycle with one hand as another hand fiddles with a mobile device to look for the next fare; and driving a car with one hand on the wheel and another on a smartphone looking for directions.
This is the kind of world we live in today — where presence and attention are not so equally divided between the physical on the left and the electronic on the right. We have already gone past the mid-point, I believe. And, it seems, it can move only to the right over time.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.