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As Headphones Invade The Office, Are We Lonelier?

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Headphones or earbuds are becoming common in the workplace. Not just for listening to music on a break, they allow people to tune out their co-workers all day long. But in many cases, those same co-workers are still communicating — online.

Melissa Gore, a project manager at Huge, a Brooklyn, N.Y., digital branding agency, works side-by-side at long tables with hundreds of others. But she doesn't hear the chatter and commotion.

"I just have some headphones on," she says. "I get in the zone with Spotify and sometimes people have to wave their hand in front of me."

Alyssa Galella sits just two seats away. She's trying to get Gore's attention the old-fashioned way. Gore eventually notices, but if she hadn't, Galella would have sent an instant message — yes, from two seats away.

That's normal here and at other places where many people work in close proximity. Tuning each other out helps people focus, and besides, everyone is connected online through Skype, IM and email. In fact, the digital world is so accepted, the workers at Huge often don't want to leave it.

Galella describes a typical meeting as a "parade of laptops."

"Everyone brings them, and people understand that just because you're not staring at someone doesn't mean you're not paying attention," she says.

'Alone Together'

"We're getting used to a new way of being alone together," says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She's concerned that all these snippets of information, texts and posts are connections, not conversations. She says technology is letting us hide from one another.

"People can't get enough of each other — if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control," Turkle said in a recent TED talk she gave called "Connected, but Alone?"

"I call it the Goldilocks effect," she said. "Not too close, not too far, just right."

Yet the jury is still out on whether being able to keep each other at a digital arm's length is making us lonely. There aren't definitive studies on Internet use in the workplace.

People who think it's isolating cite research that links Facebook to loneliness and depression. But in a case study from New York University, people who posted on an internal blog at one company actually sparked conversation and increased productivity.

That's right — they were more productive. Which is why many managers might not want to lock down social media.

Replacing The Water Cooler

Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says it makes sense that the Internet has replaced the water cooler.

"Fifteen years ago, if you had some kind of problem or question, you would have to walk around your office to find someone who had the knowledge to fix it. Whereas today, you're more likely to look on Google."

Donath is trying to make working online even more social. She's experimenting with things like making your online searches and views public to your entire work team. The idea is that knowing what your colleagues are up to will make you feel less isolated.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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