How the Cell Phone Is Forever Changing Human Communication

An ongoing study by Smithsonian anthropologists investigates the dramatic shifts wrought by the smart phone

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Social media is changing the nature of personal communication iStockphoto

This story is from the Smithsonian’s new podcast, Sidedoor. Listen to the episode “Tech Yourself” below and subscribe here for future episodes.

Nearly 10 years ago, the first ever iPhone was released, thus changing the course of human interaction. What was once an organic process that occurred in a more personal manner, the imposition of a new form of communication has redefined the way in which humans build relationships and determine social rank. An incorrectly used exclamation point could end a friendship or a picture taken with the wrong individual could cause a plummet in social standing if uploaded to Instagram.

Sure -- it may sound ridiculous that Snapchat, an application through which friends send pictures that can only be viewed for a few seconds before deletion, has the ability to destroy relationships, but cell phones have started a new type of conversation, one that has catalyzed the restructuring of our social environment.

Every picture, every snapchat, every punctuation mark is part of a new form of language brought about by a new tool of communication.

Anthropologists Alex Dent, Joel Kuipers and Josh Bell are in the first year of a three-year study that looks at cell phones trouble among teens. Josh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is investigating why apps like Instagram and Snapchat have the ability to uproot a social environment.

“It’s giving kind of a visual, tangible, index of your friendship, right? Which is interesting and there are all these different emoticons that indicate if I’m a friend with you and you’re not a friend with me,” says Bell.

The lack of face-to-face interaction is depersonalizing the way in which we communicate and, according to Bell, may depersonalize humans altogether. There is an absence of vulnerability in conversation smart phone and this deficiency may translate into substantial changes in human sociology. As for now Bell’s findings remain ‘unposted’ like a photo just taken by a teen.

With two years left on the study, however, it will likely take a comparable amount of time to edit, filter, and complete for publishing.

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