Trying to squeeze ‘I’ into team: How social media has eroded the group mentality of military units

The I’s and Me’s of Social Media have put the team on the back burner, which can be extremely detrimental, especially when teamwork can mean the difference between life and death.

In the gory aftermath of soldiers at war the cliché term “band of brothers,” seems to truly fit. However, in recent years Spencer has found that his troops have had trouble finding the same bonds that typically arise from the immense tragedies of war, as they had before. In his op-ed piece, From Army of One to Band of Tweeters, Spencer describes the decline of his unit’s cohesion accompanied with an increase in social media use. Rather than relying on one another to grapple and come to terms with the atrocities that they encountered together overseas, soldiers were more inclined to “sit silently in front of computer screens, posting about their day on Myspace and Facebook.”

U.S. soldiers are increasing their social media presence at the detriment to the group dynamic of the troop.
U.S. soldiers are increasing their social media presence at the detriment to the group dynamic of the troop. Image courtesy of Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army Africa

In just five years between his terms, Spencer was able to notice the incredible differences in activity, autonomy, and amicability between and among his troops. In 2003 he describes a group of incredibly tight knit young men, rarely interacting with those outside the troop: “cellphones were virtually nonexistent in Iraq back then.”

Now however he has returned in an era of social connectivity, where virtual interactions dominate over human ones, and the difference is particularly noticeable in battle. While in 2003 incredibly close friendships incited teamwork under the most difficult and stressful conditions. The soldiers adhered to collective rules and rebuked those who appeared misguided or unable to follow them. In 2008 however, Spencer saw a different side of his soldiers. “I saw the soldiers’ individuality in battle. I saw them arguing about what decisions to make. I often observed much more transactional communications where there would have been friendly banter in the past.”

I personally have been privy to the benefits that a lack of connectivity can have on the formation of friendships and the ability to work towards a collective goal in teams.

For years at sleep-away camp some of the closest friendships I had ever formed between the ages of 9 and 16 were formed solely because of the lack of connectivity and frequency of time spent together. We went through the trials and tribulations of puberty and our teen years together, and while it would have been easy to turn to the crutch of technology when things began to get complicated, the inability to do so, I believe, ultimately made us closer as friends, a cabin and a camp unit.

From a team perspective, my soccer team, a motley crew of fourth graders who were at best mediocre at the sport wound up playing together for the next ten years despite our succession of losing seasons at the start of our career. Because we were so young, technology was not yet a huge component of our lives and we were able to easily learn how to play with one another and anticipate each others next move. A huge aspect of team formation and effective teamwork has to do with being perceptive and learning about your team members. Social media takes you out of that moment and makes it harder to notice the small intricacies that while in soccer might lead you to let up a goal, but can have much larger consequences in the context of war.

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