New book explores how pandemic can fuel online engagement and connection

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Brandon Bouchillon’s book examines the impact of the pandemic on interpersonal relationships.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – It is too easy to blame the pandemic for an increasingly withdrawn and isolated culture.

In Competence, presence, confidence and hyperpersonal, recently published by Lexington Books, Assistant Journalism Professor Brandon Bouchillon reminds readers that American citizens began to withdraw from each other decades before COVID-19. This was the result of increasing racial and ethnic diversity, as well as a diminished understanding of how to interact.

However, Bouchillon explains that the pandemic could also connect people, forcing them to rely more on technology and enabling them to become socially competent in ways that transcend digital and physical environments.

“Bouchillon looks optimistically at ways in which a more competent engagement with and through technology opens up opportunities for transformation and renewal of social bonds and sociability,” says Brian Spitzberg, eminent professor of communication at State University from San Diego.

Brandon Bouchillon, University of Arkansas. Photo of university relations.

Bouchillon uses this approach to fight against the demonization of new media and technologies. Previous research has shown the negative effects of spending too much time on the internet and social media. But social distancing appears to have motivated individuals to use computers and technology to more fully reproduce interpersonal life, which is believed to promote social learning.

Bouchillon demonstrates that during the pandemic, socially distant individuals converted computational social competence into interpersonal competence. One felt that digital social lessons applied everywhere, and those who experienced networked environments as realistic and intimate – proof of social presence – were more apt to convert one form of skill into another. Gains in interpersonal skills have also extended to trust in the average person, which is increasingly diverse in America, and the findings suggest that technology can be used to promote more frequent and diverse social contact.

Referring to the title of the book, Bouchillon argues that society has reached a “hyperpersonal” moment, with computational social abilities and feelings of presence being used to develop interpersonal skills and social capital, even in isolation.

“It remains to be seen how the pandemic has affected our ability to live our lives at a distance,” Bouchillon says. “But we know that technology can give people the opportunity to learn to socialize and trust, even in times of crisis.”

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A offers internationally competitive education in over 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes to more than $ 2.2 billion for the economy of Arkansas through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the top 3% of colleges and universities in the United States with the highest level of research activity. American News and World Report ranks the U of A among the best public universities in the country. Find out how the U of A is working to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.


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