The topic request I received four days ago asks a pretty simple question – “Do you think there is a time and a place for connection through social media? Do you think there is a way it can be meaningful?” – yet I’ve really been struggling with it. On the one hand, I don’t want to rant. It’s a fair question and it deserves a fair answer. On the other hand, my personal experiences are clouding any objectivity I might otherwise have (isn’t that the way of it, though). So maybe that’s a good place to start.
If I were an alien that had just plunked down on earth and I were to get my values from social media – Facebook, the Youtube comments section and what I know of tumblr (which is why I’m staying away from that particular site), specifically, here’s what I might conclude:
1) Don’t ask questions. Curiosity means you’re a petty troll deserving of banishment.
2) Don’t ask for help. It will either be ignored or ridiculed.
3) State your opinions without apology. You don’t need to do any research because the right to free speech is the most important thing. If someone challenges you, name calling and sarcasm are totally appropriate responses, as are blocking them and making sure only people who agree with you can interact with you.
4) Social media is not about connection. It’s about cat videos. Any more serious posts will largely be ignored or met with sarcasm. Sincerity will be mocked.
5) Everyone is more awesome than you. That’s because you’re not putting your best foot forward online. That’s what this is about.
6) Meaningful conversation and relationship doesn’t happen here, it happens in “real life.” You know, where no one has time for you because of the cat videos and shoe polishing.
7) It is more important to state your opinion (however you want to) than connect meaningfully, have a reciprocal conversation or respect anyone else.
8) Don’t take people seriously. They only want attention and wanting attention is always bad. Compassion and empathy are weaknesses.
9) You are not responsible for the hurtful things you say. Some people are just “too sensitive” and if they don’t like you for “who you are,” even when you’re a myopic, judgmental jerk, that’s clearly their problem and you deserve better friends.
10) We are not responsible for each other.
That’s a bit harsh, I know. And this isn’t the whole of social media, just my general experience. And really, I am trying to get your attention. I’ve got friends who have left social media for these reasons, because it made them start to hate people they loved (boy can I relate) and because it’s just too damn hard to keep up. I am experiencing news anxiety – not just from the endless barrage of horrific news (juxtaposed to cat videos and pictures of people at the gym would make it just too much if it wasn’t already) but also from the lack of compassionate, careful interaction around sensitive, painful events. My efforts to engage meaningfully in things I care about are largely ignored and overlooked (on social media and elsewhere, so I don’t just have it in for social media here) while cats on skateboards and pictures of people’s dinners go viral. I don’t get it. It hurts. It’s depressing. I don’t know why I continue to participate in it.
Probably because I see that finding connection, support and encouragement does happen for some folks online. Social anxiety can be so debilitating that online relationships work way better. It seems like many people struggling with depression are more likely to reach out to strangers online than to friends and I’m glad that chat services, call lines and forums are available, though it does worry me what that says about the quality of our friendships. As we become more isolated and fearful of each other, no thanks to the stigmatizing news coverage of mental-health issues, we will be asking more of our social media sites.
And this, I’ve noticed, creates a weird feedback loop. The more we rely on virtual relationships, the less we feel we can or need or have time to give to our in-person ones. I’m guilty of this, too. But for me, social media has been a compulsion rather than a fulfilling point of connection. I think it will help me find the support, encouragement and compassion I really, really need because I see what looks like all of that happening for others. But this sort of comparison is unprecedented in human history in the first place – being able to see who cares about what and who the most – creating, mostly unintentionally, excruciating lines of inclusion and exclusion.
Of course, it’s not that simple. We don’t see everything of everyone’s lives on their Facebook page or tumblr account. But I think that’s the point. We are so much more immersed in our virtual worlds than our real worlds (especially us younger generations) that we’re shocked at the mess, work and devastation of real, and real-time, relationships. So we retreat into our computers and groom our profiles and e-lives all the more. I can’t say that social media never has a place – I’m not qualified to speak for anyone but myself – but I think social media’s usefulness for connection depends on your needs and your definition of connection. As for me, even though it’s an easy way to remind people I exist (like I seem to have to do every day), I’m starting to seriously think about jettisoning Facebook and figuring out how to be really and fully in my real life. I’m thinking this will be harder – after all, there’s a reason I turn to social media and the interwebs in the first place.