In my last column, I spoke to some of the consequences I see as a result of modern society's growing adoption of “on the run,” attention-deficit lifestyles. In particular, I noted how often you find younger people at the intersection of quickservice dining and social media use these days, eating meals almost unconsciously, focused on mobile tweets or Facebook postings rather than in-person socialization. The meal itself becomes almost an afterthought.
This tendency is certainly having an effect on those who operate foodservices and I suggested that it could have broader implications not only for longer term dining trends but also for other aspects of social interaction.
Just days after I wrote that piece, The New York Times published an op-ed column by Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at NYU, that echoed some of these concerns.
Titled, “When Roommates Were Random,” it observed that the era is ending in which incoming resident college freshmen typically were assigned roommates randomly. For better or worse, he said, that practice meant roomates often differed in terms of cultural background, income levels and personal tastes, but that these contrasts in freshman year expanded the social experience of higher education.
Instead, Conley wrote, today's students go to “sites like roomsurf.com  and roomsynch.com , scoping out prospective friends. By the time roommate application forms arrive, many like-minded students with similar backgrounds have already connected and agreed to request one another.”
This is unfortunate, he said, “especially for college age students, who should be trying on new hats and getting exposed to new and different ideas…It's just one of many ways in which digital technologies now spill over into non-screen-based aspects of social experience.” (www.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/opinion/when-roommates-were-random.html )
Some of these same observations are being made by college students themselves. In late August The Daily Eastern News, the student publication of Eastern Illinois University, ran a staff editorial titled “Dining Halls Should Not Be Tweeting” that called on the school to do more to “promote face to face interaction…rather than giving them another excuse to sit on their bums in front of their laptops.”
When my column actually appeared in mid September, Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at University of Missouri-Columbia, e-mailed to say that: “This morning, I read your September Food Management editorial with interest and found myself nodding my head in agreement…
“The grab-and-go and high technology aspects of student life today can certainly result in less direct contact with other people. That has been my concern with the convenience of takeout locations — that students are on the run so much that they take little time to sit and actually talk with others…Some very important conversations happen over food, and we in dining services provide the background for those conversations…”
She went on to say she is encouraged that modest changes (in Mizzou's case, changing all dining plans to block plans this year) can be “a major factor in the decrease in the number of takeout meals and snacks — at least until the end of the semester.” She also noted that extended night time hours of operation at one campus location meant that it now generates more transactions than the all-you-care-to-eat dinner meal at the same location. It “provides a social setting where students can safely gather, dine, study, and socialize…talking with one another!”
Meantime, do not take these musings to suggest than I am a 19th century Luddite, condemning the use of social media or technology in everyday life. Those who know me know I am pretty geek-like on my personal time. And for some interesting reading on how social media applications can productively enhance dining operations, just turn to page 18 of this issue.
Rather, I'm suggesting that just like television, one of the last century's transformative technologies, social media affects behavior in a way that must be managed in a larger social context. Allowing oneself or one's kids to become TV-addicted — or social media-addicted — couch potatoes isn't socially or behaviorally productive.
Again, your thoughts on this subject are welcome.