We’ve never been more connected to as many people as we are today. In the past, the majority of friends from our childhood or college days would have drifted into anonymity as we moved on to another stage in life. Changing jobs and moving to a different city would have meant a new set of friends and co-workers with the others mostly staying a part of our past memories. Thanks to the mixed blessings of the internet and social media, now we continue to stay connected to our past in ways that would have been impossible for the majority of us previously.
We have more “friends” than would have been possible in the past, but for some people, this pseudo friendship has become a replacement for real relationships and community. These friendships provide a false sense of community, giving us the feeling that we are connected to people relationally, but without the healthy give and take that comes from real relationships. Google searches related to the psychodynamics of social media’s impact point to major issues that people are struggling with, in spite of these “connections”.
There are several problematic differences between virtual friendships and the real thing, which contribute to really being alone together:
- Edited Virtual Life – the version of life that we see on social media is heavily edited. While we may have some friends who share their every up and down on social media, for the most part people keep it to the highlights. They take the best trips, eat the best food, have the best kids/marriage/dating relationship and overall their lives are far superior to yours. This, of course, may or may not be true, but by only seeing this highlight package, your life pales in comparison. This is one of the main reasons that social media is linked to so many psychological disorders.
- Echo Chamber of Ideas – In real life, when you share your ideas or opinions, you are forced to deal with a real, living person who will look you in the face and agree or disagree with you. This forces us to learn to either have a reasoned give and take with others or just to learn to keep our mouths shut. On social media, over time we curate our newsfeeds to filter out opinions that are not compatible with our own. Friends get “blocked” or “unfollowed” in a way that we may wish was possible in real life. In the end, reading through our social media becomes a cycle of fire – gasoline – fire where our most extreme opinions are expressed to an audience who reinforces them back to us. Instead of a fading echo, we hear an amplified echo that encourages us to keep turning up the volume.
- Uncivil interaction – Platforms that encourage more give and take, such as Twitter and Internet forums most frequently disintegrate into flame wars. Someone who tries to post a thoughtful statement in hopes of sparking a reasoned discussion is often overwhelmed with a backlash riot. Digital communication has removed tact and civility from our interactions. As someone who works with people both in person and electronically, you learn quickly the dangers of digital communication. Good communication requires work and is far easier when both people can see each others body language and hear their tone of voice. Flat text can be read completely without context and is read more through the lens of the reader than that of the writer. Digital distance encourages us to a completely self-centric viewpoint that lacks empathy and encourages disregard for others.
I could point out other distinctions, but this is enough for this text. Social media and distance relationships through the internet can be a blessing, but without a foundation built on true community, they are more likely to become a curse. We need people, and we need real friends. Friends who we communicate with face to face and who will sometimes tell us we are crazy or wrong. Coming out of the Covid-19 lockdowns, I hope that has been reinforced even more to you than it was before.
Many of us have had to experience less real, human interaction over these last couple of months than in any previous period in our lives. Don’t let that become the norm. As you are able, get out and spend time with family and friends. If all of your friends are in the virtual world, take time to actually talk to them on a video call or take the initiative to join a group where you can interact with real people. Being alone together online isn’t enough to feed the human soul. You need more than that and for sure, our society does as well.