Millennial Think Tank: The Impact of Social Media on Personal Relationships

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This week our Millennial Think Tank went back to the topic of human relationships, but focused specifically on how Social Media has impacted personal relationships.

Our panel consisted of:

  • Samantha Estoesta, a young Millennial working in Public Interest Research
  • Albert Qian, a young Millennial working in Silicon Valley
  • Kiernan McGinnis, young Millennial, 2nd year student at Lehigh University, English Lit. Major
  • Joe Cardillo,  an older Millennial, Content and Analytics specialist
  • Tiffany Daniels, an older Millennial working in Government & Community Relations
  • Jillian Jackson, a middle Millennial and Community Manager

You can watch the show in its entirety, or read our blog recap below.

This week we did not want to focus on romantic relationships, but rather, on our other personal, human relationships and how social media has effected them.  We dove in with a question that helped us get perspective on our panel’s social media connections.

How many of your social connections are people you know in Real Life?

Albert: Although Albert ‘knows’ 75% of his connections in real life, he would only want to ‘hang out’ with about 15% of them. He uses social media primarily for professional reasons, and his feed has the look and feel of promotion and networking. After logging into a friend’s Facebook account he realized how impersonal his was.

Hessie: Hessie’s family does not ‘do’ Facebook – they communicate via telephone primarily. Only 5% of her social connections are real life friends, while the rest are more like networking connections. Like Albert, much of Hessie’s social media interaction is centered around work.

Joe: Our uber organized Director of Ops figured  he knows 8% of his Twitter connections in real life; on Facebook that number jumps to 30%. Overall he pegs the total social connections he knows at 20% when all platforms are added to the mix.

Kiernan: Our resident college student knows almost all of his social connections. After being ‘fooled’ once by a group of people he thought he knew, he is much more cautious about who he trusts via social media.

Samantha: Samantha either knows all of her connections in real life, or would be comfortable going to dinner with them. She spends an inordinate amount of time online, and if the relationships aren’t fruitful within a month or so, she ends them.

Jillian: Describing her online relationships as ‘migrant,’ Jillian talked about their evolving nature. The closeness she feels to some individual connections ebbs and flows.

Tiffany: Outside of the #MTT group, Tiffany knows 90% of the connections she has on Facebook.

These numbers somewhat surprised me; I found many of the percentages of real life connections higher than I expected. It made me stop and think about how, for eons, anyone living outside of a major city probably knew almost everyone who came into their orbit. And even in cities, the smaller communities of neighborhoods ensured that you knew most of the people who lived around you. I thought about the impact of having infinite opportunities to make new connections, and how it very well may be the impetus for the now fabled Fear of Missing Out; is there someone new who will come along and be even BETTER than my latest social media BFF?

The False Sense of Intimacy

I’ve had quite a few experiences where I thought I knew someone because of our connection on social channels, only to discover that I really didn’t.  Joe asked the group

“How many people did you meet online, and then meet in real life, and what was that like?”

Samantha, who forms deep relationships online, often because she’s dealing with ethical and meaningful issues, has had primarily positive experiences. When she meets people they’re usually ‘the same’ as they behave online. She believes that this is because of the intense subject matter she connects on. She has also encountered ‘intruders’ who pretend to be part of these online circles and have taken advantage of the trust these circles have built.

When I pressed to see if anyone had experienced tremendous disappointment in an online friend, Albert had some very wise advice: watch their feed over time and the truth about who they really are will eventually come out. He talked about how important it is to keep your feed ‘clean,’ and even used the word ‘holy,’ so that it is a healthy space for you.

Jillian has encountered disappointment in a friendship that she’d developed online; and as Albert suggested would happen, eventually the truth came out over time. She is very aware that people can present a different persona online, but reminded us that people do this in real life as well. Pillars of the community who have unethical behaviors that are hidden, and suddenly discovered, are not uncommon.

Joe stated that he doesn’t think the internet is ‘yet’ representative of human nature and relationships; he thinks its easier to edit your behavior online, but if you take the time to observe an individual you will learn who they truly are.

Hessie brought private groups into the discussion, saying that if you participate in a group where people talk to each other everyday, you’ll start to see a more honest representation of who people are.

Has social media impacted your ability to form new real life friendships?

Tiffany stated that she spends SO much time online at work, and dealing with digital relationships there, that she craves real life interaction in her personal life.

I noted something I observed in my recent travels; in my old life when I was flying weekly, people struck up conversations at airport bars and sitting at their gate. Now, everyone is ‘in’ their phone. I wondered, have we lost those random interactions between humankind? Have we all climbed so far into our gadgets that we don’t really even see each other anymore?

Tiffany thinks that aging itself changes your ability to make new friends; we all know how difficult it is to make new friendships later in life. She pointed out that Social Media makes it easier to form new friendships, at least online.

I asked Kiernan if he talks to fellow students before and after class, or is everyone in their phones? He said, YES, they do still talk. I wondered if, in college, it would have been as easy to make new friends if I was still so easily connected to my old friends.

Which is your preferred method of communication?

For Tiffany, phone calls mean much more than any digital communication. If it’s an important discussion, she wants it to be on the phone or in person. A phone call is more immediate; she also sees it as more active to ignore a phone call. However, you can file a text away and respond later, and think nothing of it. It is really important to her to see facial expressions and hear emotions when discussing anything of substance.

Kiernan doesn’t like texting, describing it as awkward and clunky. He’d rather pick up the phone and call, although many of his peers are text crazy.

Not everyone agreed. Hessie feels that a phone call is too intimate for most of her social connections, and described a situation where a social connection she didn’t know called her cell and it felt incredibly intrusive.

Joe has a lot of communications with specific individuals that are in depth and solely via text. He observed that some people stratify channels – some people use texting ONLY for short conversations, for others it is a medium for deeper conversations.

Jillian feels more comfortable writing… at times she feels awkward in real life, unable to measure her words and avoid awkward pauses and phrasing.  Joe agreed, and thinks he can have a deeper connection and more intimacy in writing. Albert joined in, and says he feels more comfortable dealing with heavy stuff via writing… that it gives him time to think hard about what he wants to express. Samantha also agreed and went so far as to say she felt she could express more emotion via writing.

Joe asked where the panel wanted to hear bad news. Albert, who was asked out via text and broken up with via email, still thinks he’d rather talk in person when it’s bad news. Tiffany would want it to be via phone or in real life. She spoke about ‘manning up’ and dealing with human emotional interaction.

Samantha, who has had to deal with very, very difficult conversations online because of her work with suicide prevention feels comfortable dealing with very serious issues in chat or via messaging.


Overall, we discovered that our panel had mixed methods of how they manage their social media relationships, and many of them have become more guarded about who they let in. I don’t think anyone is shocked that our ability to be forever connected online means that we have less time for random discussions with strangers, and a greater ability to meet new people with shared interests. There was one thing I could not stop thinking about after discovering that so many of our panelists were much more comfortable communicating via their keyboard…

I wondered: are Millennials missing out on the learning curve that happens IN REAL LIFE when you are forced to learn to communicate verbally, even in difficult situations? Those awkward pauses Jillian described, aren’t they actually part of all verbal human communication? Does too much digital communication mean people are becoming uncomfortable with face to face interaction over meaningful issues?

If true, this doesn’t just impact our personal relationships, but think about the art of Sales? If I were a Sales trainer or expert, or managing an increasingly younger sales force, I’d think long and hard about how to proactively deal with what may be a waning of verbal interpersonal communication skills. Depending upon the level of verbal communication necessary, I’d also pay even closer attention to these skills and the candidates comfort level with them when hiring.

If we have truly transformed to a primarily digital communication world, where not only are the number of interactions are far greater digitally, but if the comfort level of this 80 million strong generation is with the typed word, the implications are farther reaching than I, someone who works in social media daily, thought.





0 thoughts on “Millennial Think Tank: The Impact of Social Media on Personal Relationships

  1. JoeCardillo says:

    Couple of interesting threads stuck out to me, both in participating and in reading the recap here:

    1) The whole “pays attention over time” thing, we’ve seen that before a couple of times in regards to brand ethics and how brands share their story across different channels. Not surprising that Millennials apply that to both personal and business relationships. I think it reflects a long view of signal v. noise, and that brands OR individuals that help us w/information overload by being more direct, consistent, and honest in their communication get rewarded for it with a great deal of trust (think of the brand ethics moment we had where nearly everyone on the hangout agree that a Coca-Cola or other large co that was honest about their failings and what they were working on actually prompted more trust). And conversely, punish those that aren’t.

    2) Re: the In Real Life thing, I’m actually less worried about that than most. Maybe that’s generational? E.g. that being a (nearly) digital native I simply accept that it takes time to get to know someone online and am watching for various signals over time? What I’ve seen is that it’s both possible and rewarding to develop relationships online, and frankly I don’t really distinguish between the two like I used to. But, as I’d said on the hangout I think the web is still a long way from representing the concept of human discovery as we have it in real life so we’re still working against that.

  2. AmyMccTobin says:

    JoeCardillo Yes, I think we’ve all become more savvy about online relationships.
    What I can’t stop thinking about is this preference for the written, if digital, word for communication. I want to explore that issue further.

    Interestingly, an old friend just referred me to a BBC 4 show from way back where the participants debate the written word in the form of a letter, over what was seen as the intrusive telephone. They’re opinion was that the phone would never replace the letter. 🙂

  3. susansilver says:

    One thing that should be taken in about a preference for writing is if the panel considers themselves an introvert. Now, it isn’t friendliness, activity, or openness that defines an introvert. It is where you get your energy from. If you are energized by being around others that is more extroverted behavior. if you need time to yourself to recharge after social interaction than that is more introverted behavior. Of course, with most things, it is a spectrum not an absolute and you can be one way or the other in different situations. 

    There hasn’t been any formal study that I know of, but just from community manager circles we have realized that many of us describe ourselves as introverts. And that is a good thing. We thrive in digital mediums because it takes some pressure on us to speak and gives us time to process what is going on. Then it is easier for use to leave a thoughtful response where ever we might be chatting .

    I think what we are seeing isn’t a shift to a preference for online interaction or a writing medium, but more visibility for introverts who feel at ease communicating in this medium.

  4. susansilver says:

    AmyMccTobin JoeCardillo If you do take up the written communication than I would love to weigh in. You can see my comment above with a few of my thoughts. But I love written correspondence and I am even adding it to my regular routine to keep in touch with my network contacts.

    We are at a time, when a brand sends you a hand written message in the mail, that it feels like a very special thing. I’ve used that for Gygax and it improved our relationships with readers. It let them know that in a sea of people that they still stand out. 

    To your point Joe, I have also stopped distinguishing between online and offline friends. I have a precious few that have crossed over. I do believe over time we get a feel for who people are. 

    Though I do so hate that we can manufacture a personality over social media through careful editing. It is very scary how far people will go. Just think about sock puppet accounts that are used by hackers and trolls. They invent people to push their point of  view or make it seem more accepted or legitimate than it actually is.

  5. AmyMccTobin says:

    susansilver AmyMccTobin JoeCardillo Your comment just gave me an idea!

  6. AlbertQian says:

    My preferred method of communication is through message. I think because my life is busy, I would rather schedule plans that way, unless of course they would rather talk by phone. It can be fairly difficult to get ahold of most people. We are a society that prides itself on busy…

  7. janlgordon says:

    NoMossBrands Thank you for the RT great article Amy AmyMccTobin

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