Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and more allow people from across the planet, and above it to connect, collaborate, commiserate, and consume the produce of our information age. News now travels faster than reason, even though most of it is meaningless drivel. But these sites and many more like them are a new world to be explored and conquered. The essence of social media are the connections among the people who use them. On Facebook, they are called “friends”. This is a misnomer, since one doesn’t have to be a friends to be a contact. Unfortunately, these sites have redefined words like “friend” and “relationship”. In fact many new words have been added to our lexicon. “Unfriend” is a word I wish never existed. It just seems such a dissociative and antisocial action, not, say, as degrading as public shaming in the town square. But being unfriended is demoralizing, until you’ve experienced it – or actually done it to someone – enough times to the point of becoming desensitized, jaded of the information age with an overload of social media. Friends used to be harder to discard. We were miserable when we lost a friend, but the pain would subside. Before the internet ever hatched and crawled out of its pod, writhing, unaware of its awesome and terrifying potential, humans had to meet face-to-face in order to deal with each other. It was considered bad form to deliver bad news over the phone. Nowadays, you’ll just get blocked. That’s nice. Blocked. Like being constipated.
In 1992, while living in a college town in Texas, doing less than my best at graduate study, I had, basically, no friends. I was studying English lit, working evenings in the VAX lab (think mainframe computing), and adjusting to being a husband. I didn’t have time for friends. Looking back, I’m a little surprised at this. But we didn’t stay there long, and we moved back closer to where we started out. By then, people were talking about the new worldwide web. For those of us who were already “online”, it didn’t sound like much. Within a few years, however, things began to pick up dramatically. I was now in the software side of computing, having abandoned a graduate degree in 18th century English novels. The “web” as it was being called was beginning to emerge as something more useful than the old BBS system we were used to. Then came search engines, then Geocities, blogs, websites, web stores, social media sites, and the rest.
Here we are, now, well into the 21st century. Mobile devices are everywhere, so there’s never a moment when a person can’t be reached. It’s convenient, but at the same time, annoying. Sometimes I don’t want to respond to a text message or an email. I like to go to movies without having to see little rectangles of light everywhere. And it seems like everywhere I go, people are more interested in recording an event than actually experiencing it.
If you are living life on a screen, perhaps you should get out more. I know people who have hundreds or perhaps thousands of online “friends”. I firmly believe that it is not possible for a person to have more than 20 actual friends. My social media rule for “friending” someone is that they must be an actual friend, such as I have been to their home or they to mine. Sharing meals, helping someone move, giving him a ride from the airport. These are things friends do. It’s important to know that just because someone has been to my house doesn’t mean we are friends. The UPS driver is not my friend. This might apply to certain members of my family. They may have been at my table for Thanksgiving dinner, but we are not friends in any sense. I’m sorry that it has to be that way.
I occasionally disable my Facebook account due to my exposure to so much hateful shit. There are people who say things that a reasonable person would never say to your face. If they do, I would imagine they get punched in the face a lot. Facebook and the rest seem to have killed real social interaction. We have forgotten our manners. We don’t know the truth, only proliferating rumors and interjections from blithering idiots. Of course, people are free to say whatever they want, within reason. But civility and courtesy have been replaced by loud-mouthed blatherskites, trolls who just want to draw attention to themselves.
I’m not alone. Digital detox is something I heard about recently. People are beginning to see what the last 20 years of rapid technological advancement has done to our society, but my wife already sees it. She is electro-hypersensitive, meaning when she is around electronic devices – mobile phones, microwave ovens, and laptops – she feels intense pain and becomes temporarily disoriented and impaired on a cognitive level. This is not a rare condition anymore, with more and more people reporting an array of symptoms from headaches to unexplained rage. For her, going without a mobile is not only an option, it’s an absolute necessity.
I’ve re-enabled my Facebook account since my last post. And I’m slowly venturing back into that world. But it’s too easy to get list in the social networking doldrums, staring at a stagnating news feed, looking for someone to “like” what you just posted. It’s an exercise in narcissism, and it appears to be enabling a world of dreary loneliness.
I mean to reconnect with an old friend soon. It’s been far too long. And Facebook is not a substitute for sitting next to someone and catching up. I recommend it. Leave your phone in the other room.