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February 10, 2011

Tim Fadek: Is Social Media Destroying Public Interaction?

Out of curiosity I went to the cocktail reception at the New York Public Library for the launch of Social Media Week. This is a yearly event, started in 2009, with a series of conferences to discuss trends in social and mobile media. This gathering I photographed was intended to be a social event to bring hundreds of social media executives together.  Maybe it’s a stretch, but I see irony here — guests seemed to spend more time with their phones than with each other.  This begs the question: Outside of virtual, online sociality, does Social Media make us more or less social in person?

And this was not an event where people were using their devices to actually demonstrate anything. Instead, the majority of guests were tweeting what was going on at the party. When I went up to people, many would ask who I was shooting for, then ask for my twitter name and immediately tweet it. Bing.

I probably did more talking than anyone else.  I went up to one women, teasing: “Hey, you don’t have a ring on your finger. Why don’t you talk to that guy.”

“Oh, he’s busy.”

There were so many people like this guy at the little round table. People would go off in the corner with their iPhone or Blackberry, the body language saying they couldn’t care less to be at a reception.

Everyone at this event was holding a smartphone.  Whether they were talking to someone or not. An interesting thing is how much the device for many people serves as appendage, the modern equivalent of a blanket, a transitional object.

This last photo really captures everything I’m talking about.  Here was a great opportunity for execs and entrepreneurs to get together and they were mostly in their own little cubicle, these two people completely encapsulated in their respective spaces.

– Tim Fadek

PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM FADEK — More Tim Fadek at The Bag.

About the Photographer

Tim Fadek

Timothy Fadek is based between New York and Berlin. He began his career in photography at 28, after having worked in advertising. He is represented by Redux Pictures. His key bodies of work to date have included conflict coverage in Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Macedonia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in addition to post-conflict coverage in Kosovo, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, presidential elections in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, social issues such as the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, the population explosion in Chongqing, China, foster care in New York, and most recently, the effects of the gold rush in Mongolia. He has worked on assignment for publications including Time, New York Times Magazine, Stern, Le Monde, and National Geographic. His photographic reporting has been published in scores of magazines worldwide. Fadek also has exhibited his work internationally, including the Polka Gallerie and the Centre National de la Photographie, both in Paris, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Palazzo delle Exposizioni in Rome. He has won several awards including Pictures of the Year (POYi), Best of Photojournalism (NPPA), Henri Nannen Preis (finalist), Communication Arts, and was named a Hero of Photography by American Photo magazine. Fadek has spoken at many organizations and universities, including the International Center of Photography, New York University, and the Paley Center for Media and has served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. See more of Tim's work for BagNews here.

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  • Karen h.

    I have never understood the noise of “Device as Appendage” and remember fondly the time when no one could contact you if you weren’t near your home phone. These photos bring that nostalgia into focus. I have to wonder if these folks are even interacting socially with their smartphones….many are probably doing work-related tasks. Do smartphones increase our work day as well as our personal isolation?

  • bks

    I turned off my cellphone. What a relief!


  • m s garrity

    Social media is paralyzing personal interaction in much the same way that server technology paralyzed management. Immediacy of information is not necessarily a good thing.

  • Nina Alvarez

    Oft discussed topic — mostly online. Nicely done Tim especially with images– just one thing… ” I went up to one women, teasing: “Hey, you don’t have a ring on your finger. Why don’t you talk to that guy.” Really? Hmmmm…

  • John


    I drive a transit bus in a mid-size city. I drive routes that go to the local University.. The kids (putatively young adults)all have bus passes and if they are not on the phonethey have their ears plugged with ear buds or covered with a stereo headset.

    They get on wrong buses, get off at wrong stops, forget to pay their fare and walk around like deaf people without a deaf person’s skills-including in front of moving buses. They frequently botch paying their fare at the scanner by improper use of their bus pass or scanning some other card like their drivers license. They get frustrated but can’t put the phone down for five seconds to perform the task. I’ll say something to them and they won’t hear me; annoyed I’ll sometimes amuse myself by saying “testing, testing, 1-2-3, can you hear me?”

    If you are familiar with American marketing you should know that anything called a “smartphone” will be a device that makes people stupid.

  • Matt

    Super Sad True Love story finds its way to reality. Sad indeed.

  • Wayne Dickson

    Seen the commercial where a man and woman are sitting together in a restaurant, each holding a phone. He says, “You just broke up with me in a text?” She replies, “Yes, but it’s OK. I still have a lot of minutes left.”

    If a commercial turns on an incident like that, you know it’s well ensconced in the public consciousness.

    • James

      I haven’t seen the commercial but just a few days ago in a coffee shop I was admiring a very pretty woman who was sitting next to a man holding hands. She was manipulating her smartphone with her other hand and he was using a laptop. Neither was looking at or speaking to the other.

      Last week at a political rally a guy I hadn’t seen for several years approached me and as we were catching up he took his phone from his pocket and began doing something to it with his fingers as he looked at the screen. I walked away.

  • Yves Choquette

    It always sound strange to me when we are blaming the technology for our lack of social relationship. Nobody force us to devote all our energy on techno gadgets. We have lost the sense of comunity, well before the arrival of the iPhone, Blackberry, etc.. For me the problem is much deeper and shows us what kind of society we have chosen to build.

  • Marie

    These photographs are so telling of the disconnect inherent in delegating our personal interactions through a secondary medium.

    I expect the growing ubiquity of social media will have two effects – one, we’ll become more jaded over time about how much of our attention is being sucked by these new engaging toys and learn how to set limits for ourselves, and two, we’ll see this disconnect (between our real life reality and our digital reality) normalized.

    So after the thrill wears off, we’ll notice how we feel rushed from keeping up with “everything” and dragged out from lack of sleep. I can recall similar results from my first encounter with other no-limit situations (staying out late in college, the internet, chatrooms). I’ve already found myself backing away from the whole Facebook-Twitter-Smartphone reality and enjoying real-life connections in the last year. Not that I don’t enjoy the digital medium(s), but they can overwhelm more important things.

    The danger is that just as we are acclimated to our current digital distractions, new ones will hit the market. When we get off this train of distraction? Not at this kind of conference, that’s for sure.

    Just thought of a third likely result: We will pursue these kind of distractions willingly. Anything to avoid dealing with the life in front of us, and our current state of reality.

  • Stephanie

    This is a really informational post. Really great work.

  • Jethro

    I do love the pictures, though this group of “Social Media Executives” is probably not a representational slice of contemporary society.

    Personally, I have found that social media has made me more social in the real world. By a lot! It’s difficult to go to a party, or an art opening for instance, without someone recognizing my name, or associated photos via some mutual acquaintance on facebook. When I first got involved with facebook a few years ago, I was creeped that it would be the end of personal (meatspace) interaction. I have been pleasantly surprised how the exact opposite has become the reality. Though this is just my personal experience

  • Wade

    Great pictures of a very worthy subject, Tim. I reckon the measure of just how much this affects you is how anxious you feel when you have to switch your phone off, and just how quickly you turn it on again as soon as you have the opportunity..

  • Enoch Root

    I’m going to criticize this essay mercilessly. :-)

    1) Here’s an alternate headline: Photographer Uses Camera To Distance Himself From Subjects.

    2) People who are social media execs need a trail of documentation that says they are attending a meeting of social media execs. That’s their business. What they are doing is working at a professional gathering. There is nothing that any speaker can say that can really be of note, and it will all be on YouTube later anyway. These people are communicating with each other, through mediating technology, and staying on task just like any other set of execs networking at a meeting.

    3) Before you go writing off the whole of western society because some of us have smart phones, I want to mention an experience I had recently. I have friends who are autistic. We text each other. They can relate to the phone enough to type an SMS to me, and it’s easier for them to ‘hear’ what I have to say if they can read it, and scroll back and remember the context. Some people actually *need* to use technology such as this, and many of us benefit from it in many ways that don’t interrupt social existence.

  • Tim Fadek

    I’m the photographer who contributed this story. Thank you for all of your comments. I’m glad this has sparked a conversation. Now might be a good time to insert a few words of my own, just to elaborate on a few points and also respond to some comments.

    As a photographer, it’s my job to see. Really see. With that comes some advantages and limitations. All I can offer are my observations, delivered through photographs. These photographs are the result not only of observation but also of my opinion. And opinion is just that, open to debate.

    At this gathering, it seemed clear to me that these young business folks forgot a fundamental lesson from business school — you have to press the flesh in order to network and establish new connections. That’s the whole point of networking, cocktail parties, receptions etc — to do a face-to-face. It’s the human element that is fundamental in business.

    In response to you, Jethro when you said:

    “I do love the pictures, though this group of “Social Media Executives” is probably not a representational slice of contemporary society.”
    True, it’s a hyper-representation since these folks are social media people to begin with, and this is their stock in trade. But it’s not that far off. Particularly in the U.S., just look around, especially among the under 25 set.

    In response to you, Enoch Root when you wrote about your friends who are autistic and text back and forth, I think that is absolutely wonderful to learn about this. I had no idea. Mind you, I’m a big believer and supporter of all the social media tools that are available. I have accounts with Facebook, twitter and I use them often, although I tend to communicate more via email and sms. Just look at the power of social media for stirring up the current uprising in Egypt.

    Regarding your comment on using a camera to distance myself from subjects, I’d say that’s an oft-discussed subject always worth of debate. Every documentary photographer I know is innately curious about people, to the point of flat out being nosey. Having a camera is a passport, a reason, to enter other people’s lives. So in many ways, I use a camera to actually get closer to my subjects. And depending on the situation, such as this party, it’s completely appropriate for me to talk to the very people that I’m photographing. I wanted to know what they were doing. I asked and found out: they were tweeting, checking Facebook and sending sms’. What they were NOT doing: saving electronic business cards and exchanging contact info. Had I tried to distance myself by hiding behind the camera, I’d never had found out what really was going on.

    And lastly to Nina, who gave me the “hmmmm” to my feeble attempt at matchmaking while shooting. I had overheard the two women talking about the New York dating scene and how tough it is for them. So I said a few words to stir the pot. At least they were talking.

    • omen

      facebook/twitter get all the credit for egypt, but there was something else:

      from pbs newshour:

      JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Adel Iskandar, you have looked at how social media has developed in Egypt as it’s — an evolving political role for many years now. As it’s developed, who does it reach? Who has it been reaching? And how is — how did that change even in the last few weeks?

      ADEL ISKANDAR, Georgetown University: Well, I think it’s important to note that 20 percent of the population in Egypt has access to the Internet, which is a slim number, if you think about it. How many of those have access to Facebook? How many of them are prepared to use it for a political — for a political means?


      JEFFREY BROWN : Now, Larry Pintak, I want to bring you in here, because you have watched this, both social media and Al-Jazeera, for many years.
      Does — does Al-Jazeera and satellite TV reach a different audience, a broader audience? How does — how does — how does it interact with what we’re talking about here?

      LAWRENCE PINTAK, Washington State University: This was a digital one-two punch. The — the social media allowed the activists to network. It got them organized in those kind of communities Adel was talking about, got them on to the street. But it was television that really dealt the final blow.The fact that Egyptians and Arabs across the region could sit in their homes watching this play out on the street meant they were inspired.
      So, all of those people who, you know, never logged on to a Facebook page could suddenly go out in the street and take part.


      JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Larry Pintak, what do you think about this question, because it comes down to controlling the message, right? And governments can be very adept at doing that as well.

      LAWRENCE PINTAK: Well they can be, but this showed us that there are limits to that. I mean, you can’t plug all those information portals now. And while social media, television are just tools, the bottom line is that this revolution started a week after Tunisia. It was a direct cause-and-effect.
      It may have happened eventually, but it was the – the catalyst of seeing Tunisia on television that brought people out on the streets.

  • Aaron

    All this new technology thats being continuously thrown into our lives is great but “with great power comes great responsibility” – spiderman

  • omen

    it would be mean to pronounce a judgement of “narcissism.” i wondered if that was it at first. now, i don’t think so. i’m at a loss to articulate this sad emptiness.

  • Books Alive

    A young lifeguard at the pool where I swim has her smartphone in tow so that she can use it in between her assigned times on duty. Gives me an eerie feeling, but maybe she needs to take advantage of the free time.

  • Eroshoagland

    Its like their all sneaking of to do blow.

  • Jasmine DeFoore

    This is depressing. Jay took me to the ballet the other night for my birthday (what a sweetie) and as soon as a piece was over and the theater lights would start to come up for an intermission, everyone got out their phones. One by one you’d see all of the iphones light up, like lightning bugs on a summer night. The 20 minutes everyone had them off was just too much for most.

    I’m bad at this too, but I’m trying to be better. I think I don’t need an iPad after all, because I know it will further distract me from the real world even more.

  • j

    Why did they even bother to attend the event ? 

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