I’ve been talking to a dear friend of mine a lot in the past couple of weeks about love and relationships. I’m significantly older than her, but we seem to be kindred spirits, and I recognize a lot of her feelings as my own back when I had to navigate a romantic social life that wasn’t loyal and devoted commitment with J. It’s hard being single when you don’t really want to be in whatever time period you happen to be single in. I still share a lot of her frustration when it comes to navigating platonic and familial relationships now. And I don’t want to get on the bandwagon that blames the phenomenon of social media for the degradation of human relationships and societal issues. I don’t really feel that way at all. If it weren’t for social media, I wouldn’t have been able to reconnect or remain connected with some of my friends. If it weren’t for modern online dating, I’d have never met J. If it weren’t for blogging, I wouldn’t talk to most of my favorite people to talk to now, and I’d have never published or sold a book. I owe a lot of my current happiness and contentment to the internet in general and social media specifically. But I will say, there are some trends I see that are less than ideal that social media definitely contributes to, and exacerbates, if it didn’t actually outright create them.
The first one is that, at least for socially anxious people like me, that while social media has rekindled some real authentic connection for me, it’s revived and kept alive a lot MORE relationships that were meant to stay in the past and live only in memory. Before social media, we didn’t all keep in touch with everyone from every class in every school we ever attended, every neighbor from every street we ever lived on, every coworker from every job we’ve ever had…(because we didn’t have the capability or the need…and I argue we still mostly don’t have the need). For me, I didn’t feel connected to most of these people in real time, and it always struck me as odd that these people…who never actually spoke to me with any depth when we were in the same physical space…wanted to be ‘connected’ to me on social media to see photos of my kid and my dog and tell me happy birthday. They didn’t know my birthday or care about it when they sat next to me in Spanish or worked with me in the Estimating Department…so why do they want to pretend to now?
And whether a person is socially anxious or not, I think social media has serious potential to give the illusion of caring and connection when none is really there.
Which brings me to the other main issue I have with social media…the main reason I left most social media.
Social media is effortless. Literally. It doesn’t ‘seem’ effortless. It IS effortless. And love and connection aren’t. They require effort. Real romantic love, real friendship, real family connection…requires real effort. And social media’s design sets up a hollow framework that easily masquerades as real connection. But it’s not real connection.
The specific thing I spoke with my young friend about the other day was that she began feeling distance from a friend she held dear when he ‘stopped liking her posts.’ We talked about how sometimes how a person shows they care doesn’t come in a way that’s convenient to see, but it’s the effort a person makes for you that matters, not a specific action. And I told her that social media ‘likes’ are effortless. It’s almost totally mindless to click a button and give a person the empty illusion that you care about what they said, what they made, what they shared with you…that you care about them. It’s easy to give a person a rote phrase in response to a prompt. It’s seconds. It requires no thought.
And my friend said during our chat that she’d had an epiphany thinking about that. She asked after her friend when she felt his ‘distance’ from his abrupt lack of ‘likes.’ And he spoke with her patiently for an extended period of time about her anxiety. Even though she didn’t get a definitive explanation that totally eased her mind at the time, she realized that someone willing to talk to her through anxiety was a much grander show of effort and care and connection than clicking ‘like’ was.
Why has ‘like’ become so important to us when it’s so effortless? It can make us overlook real effort being put forth on our behalf because we’re focused on the meaningless, effortless ‘likes,’ instead of how people truly engage us in connected communication.
I’ve said before that I left social media last June, and I don’t miss it. When I first left, I was worried about losing connection with people I only really had access to, and who only really had access to me, on social media. But I told folks I was leaving. And almost no one reached out for an email…to ask about my writing…to ask if we could text. And I realized I wasn’t really losing any connection. Almost no one there was putting out any effort to communicate with me in a real way. And while I am not trying to demonize social media or online social life in any way…I’ve said…nearly ALL the good things in my life are a direct result of online social life, I definitely feel better now that I’m not engaging in the facade of connection anymore. Sometimes, relationships that were only surviving on life support need to have the plug pulled. That’s not nihilistic and dark. Not intentionally anyway. It’s just better for me (and some of my real connections too) to have fewer quality connections with reciprocal effort extended than to have hundreds of vapid ‘likes’ that only provide the illusion of effort.