UNPLUG ME! “Do We Need Social Media to be Social?”

I am a digital immigrant who does not, under any circumstance, wish to become a citizen.

Are the Internet and social media making us antisocial? Are they also playing to our most base instincts by allowing us to be cruel to others with impunity? Because our online communication comes without any of the facial cues, vocal inflection or body language that can be decoded and interpreted in a face-to-face conversation, we feel free sometimes to make our language online as acidic and biting as possible. I myself am definitely guilty of this, having leveled a few contemptuous and withering attacks in the directions of those that I thought stupid enough to disagree with me.

Two of the fellows I work with rarely speak to one another in person, but have colorful arguments back and forth on Facebook when they get home at night. Are they really changing each other’s minds about politics or social issues? Are they each teaching the other things about the world that he didn’t already know or suspect? Or are they reinforcing their own belief systems, building a quiet animosity when they pass in the hallway?

Describing the extraordinary rising popularity of television in the 1950s, the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot referred to it as “a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” Could this now be especially true of social media?

It was nearly four years ago that Quit Facebook Day took place on Memorial Day of 2010. And though a mere 33,000 people deleted their accounts that day, Quit Facebook Day is now something of a holiday of its own, with people leaving the site every year. My friend Debbie quit that day. She was happy, exultant even, though she risked losing contact with friends back home. She was even losing regular contact with certain members of her family, though she hoped they’d still call and write. She saw it as an important step in unshackling herself from something that she’d begun likening to an enormous surveillance engine, something that seemed to know almost everything about her.

“It wasn’t long,” she told me “before I came to grips with the amount of time I was wasting on something incapable of repaying my service to it.” She knew that the majority of her online ‘friends’ were barely more than acquaintances, if that. “And I wasn’t able to be present emotionally to so many people, let alone physically. How could I consider myself a friend to them?” She also admitted that Facebook, while fun at first, had ultimately begun to make her miserable.

The conclusion of a study published in August of 2013 by PLOS One, a journal published by the Public Library of Science, is that: “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect. Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.”

A survey by Nielsen, home of the famous television rating system, found that Facebook users averaged more than seven hours per week on the site, making it one of the most heavily trafficked websites in the world, and one of the most popular ways to waste time in the early twenty-first century. And I wasn’t surprised to also learn that people who spend a disproportionate amount of time maintaining and manicuring their online persona are also more susceptible to depression as they struggle to keep pace with the apparently glamorous lives of their friends. The FOMO phenomenon (“Fear Of Missing Out”) is something that enhances feelings of anxiety, of frustration. Seeing others pursue much more interesting lives can foster feelings of impotence in the people simply watching it all while they languish in the potato chip crumbs of their own sedentary isolation.

Pre-dating Facebook by half a century, rock and roll could have been called the first social intoxicant and symbol of social adventure, the first that successfully changed the way people thought, behaved and saw the world around them. John Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, said that adventure for young people now comes from being in front of a TV screen or a laptop: “They’re being taught daily unsocial skills.” He also referred to Facebook as an “unsocial skill,” sustained, supported, legitimized and propped up by people who should be out in the world making mistakes and discoveries on their own, like he did.

But a study published in January of this year by Princeton University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering predicted that Facebook will lose more than 80% of its users between 2015 and 2017, in a mass emigration away from the website that mimics the path infectious diseases take as they reach a peak strength and gradually dissipate. The study used “epidemiological models to explain user adoption and abandonment of Online Social Networks, where adoption is analogous to infection and abandonment is analogous to recovery.” This is good news to some. Others, like one of my classmates here, described the findings as nonsense (she used a slightly more colorful synonym).

Debbie has recently been accepted to grad school. And I haven’t a clue how she’d manage to keep up with the world of status updates and ‘Likes’ and her own coursework. She doesn’t either. I followed her, deleting my own account three years ago. I haven’t missed it since.

(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA–June 2014)

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