I came across the following video recently. The narrative is all too familiar — social media and instant messaging apps have consumed our lives, they have destroyed our “real” relationships, they have made us narcissists, they have made us lonely.
This argument seems persuasive, especially when you show two people busy texting — instead of talking to each other — while on a date. But is it really true?
The anecdotal evidence doesn’t suggest so. I have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Quora, Goodreads and maybe a few other social networking platforms I can’t recollect. I use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, GTalk and the good-old SMS for textual communication. Have all these platforms made me lonely? I don’t think so. Are my friends, who are also heavy users of internet-mediated communication platforms, lonely? I don’t think so. Friends’ friends? I doubt. So is there no grain of truth in the “Facebook Is Making Us Lonely” narrative? No. But we can surely analyze where it emanates from and why so many people buy it.
Every new technology comes with a new set of affordances, enabling us to perform certain functions more efficiently. But our body and mind cannot adjust to the changes immediately, more so if the technology in question is a communication tool. The novelty of the tool drives us into overuse and this may create feelings of guilt. We may also start doing time-cost analysis, and think that we are wasting our time on these tools.
In the history of human civilization, this is the first time we are relying so heavily on the written word for interpersonal communication. In a typical day, our fingers talk a lot more than our mouths. But it is a fallacy to argue that textual communication eats up the time which we’d have rather spent talking face to face. People do not always text others to pass time, sometimes it is for work too. And even when they do so, it’s because they have nothing else of importance to do. A close friend of mine is currently in Canada. Texting is the only way I can stay in touch with her. But when she comes back, meeting her will be on the top of my agenda. Technology-mediated communication has not replaced face-to-face communication. It only has complemented it.
Social media has not ruined our relationships either. Our friends on Facebook are not “virtual” friends. Our personas on social media are not “virtual” personas. There is no “virtual”. Everything is real. You cannot separate your existence on social media from “non-social media” spheres. The two are intertwined. If I say something misogynist on Facebook, it’s not like my friends will ignore it because I am a nice person in “real” life. The conversations you have on social media platforms are as real as they can get.
Social media can sometimes feel alienating. You look at your Facebook feed and sulk how everyone is having such a nice time while you are sitting alone in your bedroom refreshing the webpage five times per ten minutes. Some people allege that social media users only show their best side to the world and hide their vulnerabilities. What we see on social media is the “edited” version of a person’s life. But don’t we do that otherwise too? If someone gets engaged, they break the news to all their friends and invite them to their wedding. But have you heard anyone inviting their friends to the court proceedings of their divorce case? We edit our lives not just for the social media audience but everyone in our life, including our parents and partners.
But if people’s “edited” lives are making you feel miserable, it’s not their fault. Their life is happening and yours is not because they are doing things while you are not. Don’t blame social media if you are feeling lonely or if you feel there is something inadequate about your relationships. There is no causal relationship between them. The answer lies elsewhere: look inside, introspect; you may find an answer.