Is the fight between face-to-face and phone time legitimate?

The need to connect with our fellow human beings seems to be hardwired into our DNA. The popularity of social media, combined with the ubiquity of mobile phones, feeds this basic need. Ironically, our addiction to the very devices designed to keep us connected often gets in the way of more meaningful face-to-face encounters or life experiences. This is the premise espoused by many and clearly articulated in a Forbes article last July.

We’ve all seen examples: people preoccupied with taking selfies at the Grand Canyon instead of actually enjoying the view; kids playing video games at the dinner table instead of talking to the family; teenagers so absorbed in their text-life that they’ve lost the inclination to converse with the people around them. It’s annoying. But let’s put this in context. When I was a kid, adults worried that my generation watched too much TV. And their parents probably thought they listened to too much radio. Edgar Allen Poe’s father warned him not to waste all that time scribbling stories and poems. So it goes.

As the father of three amazing, uniquely gifted young women, I would never underestimate the importance of on-the-go connectivity in their lives.  They grew up with it. It helps them navigate the world. They may be dependent on their phones, but they aren’t obsessed.  And to be honest, as a busy executive who needs to consult with colleagues and clients, review plans, answer email and make important decisions every day, I have learned to treat a simple Lyft ride to the airport as golden work time with my phone.  When my colleagues glance at a text message or email when we’re together, I understand that the ability to conduct digital triage is precisely what has let them make time for me in their busy schedules. And they know the same goes for me.

The problem, clearly, is that some people can’t put their phones down long enough to interact with the people around them — people with whom they could be sharing a live experience. It’s now routine to announce before a play, lecture, concert, worship service or other collective experience that people should silence their phones. A number of educators and performing artists require students or audience members to bag their cell phones before the event starts, to remove the temptation to disrupt the experience. I think this is great — if only because it sets the expectation that we don’t do that here. It’s understanding the expectation that is important. Our standards for social etiquette need to catch up with technology so that people recognize what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior. The best way to do that is to validate the right behaviors using social media, not dissing it. (#SocialProof)

As a marketer who has spent most of his career in the business of creating opportunities for face-to-face connection on a massive scale, I am committed to the power of live engagement. I have seen how an idea can be amplified, expanded upon and embraced by thousands when people share the experience of walking through an expo or simply network in the hotel bar. But I refuse to dismiss the mobile phone experience as unwanted competition. In fact, I see this as an opportunity. I want to create brand experiences that are so engaging, so relevant, so inspiring that people actively participate in them and then capture and share the moment on social media.  Instead of telling people not to bring their phones into the General Session, I want them to solidify the connection by inviting their questions and comments using second-screen technology. Instead of shoving paper at people, I want to give them information digitally, so that they can comment, search and share it all from that shiny little rectangle they take everywhere.

Do people need to spend more time exercising their social skills than their social media skills? Many do. But instead of complaining about it, or shaming those caught in addictive behaviors, we can present an enticing alternative. When we design irresistible, inspirational brand experiences —and give people a better reason to pull out their smart phones — everyone wins.