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It's common in offices these days to see workers wearing headphones or earbuds. They may be tuning each other out, but they're also staying in touch by other means, digital means. Kaomi Goetz has this story on the effects of going digital at work.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: Melissa Gore is a project manager at a Brooklyn digital branding agency called Huge, working side by side at long tables with hundreds of others. But what she hears isn't chatter and commotion. It's this...


MELISSA GORE: I sort of listen to my - I just have some headphones on. I get into the zone with Spotify and sometimes actually people have to, you know, wave their hand in front of me occasionally.



GOETZ: Alyssa Galella sits just two seats away. She's trying to get Gore's attention the old-fashioned way.



GOETZ: Gore eventually noticed, but if she hadn't, Galella would have sent an instant message or IM - yes, from two seats away. That's normal here and at other places where lots of 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.

GALELLA: It's just a parade of laptops because everyone brings them, and people understand that just because you're not staring at someone doesn't mean you're not paying attention.

SHERRY TURKLE: We're getting used to a new way of being alone together.

GOETZ: Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle is concerned that all these snippets of info, texts and posts are connections, not conversations. She says technology is letting us hide from one another. This is from a recent TED talk she gave called "Connected, but Alone?"

TURKLE: 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. I call it the Goldilocks effect. Not too close, not too far, just right.

GOETZ: 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 but people who think it's isolating cite research that links Facebook to loneliness and depression. But in a case study by 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.

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

JUDITH DONATH: 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.

GOETZ: 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 knowing what your colleagues are up to will make you feel less isolated. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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