I know what it is now that has changed in me to make me more dubious of the big-picture social benefit of social media. It is not a change in knowledge or analysis, but a change in life experience, and a shift in perspective that proceeds from my personal life.
I have come to realize in a visceral way that is only recently possible for me—and I mean that literally—that what social media is, beyond being a way of connecting people that would otherwise be practically unable to connect, is a giant system for the complete personal management of social risk. The former is a laudable quality. The latter is a harmful one.
Under the guise of security and safety, social media gives individuals the ability to manually set the level of risk that they will face in social interaction. One can revise and re-revise one’s statements and photos until they are polished to a sheen to support a particular desired ego and persona. This can take any amount of time; the person insecure about their appearance can post what appears to be a momentary snapshot photo that in fact took weeks of curation and editing to achieve; the person insecure about their own wisdom and knowledge can scour texts and Google endlessly for just the right collection of Zen quotes to post airily as just-so-many-little-thoughts-in-passing.
Individuals can decide who sees and who does not see what they say. They can hide their engagement with others until and unless they have the perfect witticism or statement of support with which to respond. If, a moment or two after some action, an individual sees their most recent gesture in a new light, they can delete it, pull it back again before it is seen by anyone.
They can even return to the past—years back in wholesale—curating the story of their lives to hide the embarrassing, the mistaken, the regretted, and anything that doesn’t fit their current self-narrative.
All of the risk of social life—of conversation, of engagement, of communication, of other people—is eliminated. And so, too, thus, is all vulnerability, all intimacy, and all natality.
Sociability is edifying because it is fraught, and because it is opaque. Our experience of “others” as social beings is unavoidably bound up with the danger, wild (in the animal sense) human agency, practical novelty, and potential for achieved mutuality that they represent. We are hard-wired as a social species to need and to respond to these things. “Successful” sociability (say, on social media) without these things is like receiving a medal just for turning up at the race. It may be shiny, but it rings hollow, and is as likely to foster insecurity and self-doubt as anything else.
It goes well beyond the problem that people can “surround themselves with those that agree with them.” It’s that people can no longer even recognize disagreements or know whether others actually agree with them or not. It is lonely on social media because very few put themselves there, really—and because nobody can know whether any of the others that they see are one of those few at all.
I think it goes well beyond the commonly cited criticism of “narcissism” caused by social media; it’s actually the opposite—the potential for a descent into deep fear and isolation that is masked and goes unnoticed. Surrounded by an overload of social information and apparent connection, individuals don’t see the fact that the very essences of social being—novelty, risk, and the unavoidable confrontation with the uniqueness and depth of others, all of these working in tandem to create the new, to expand horizons—have been stripped out of the flow.
As a platform and structure, social media thus creates a kind of starvation, and by turns, an insatiable hunger for social being. As a primary habit for the pursuit of social being, it then intensifies and feeds this starvation and hunger. The right answer is to rediscover risk. To turn to social interaction that is not settled, cannot be controlled, may go wrong, is uncomfortable, includes not just everyone’s curated best but also everyone’s actual worst. But at the very same time, this answer is counterintuitive, since the density of interaction of any kind is so much lower outside of social media. It rather seems to stand to reason that if one is insatiably hungry for social being, one ought to turn to the place where it is most plentiful—and so the hungry of the present tend to turn precisely to that which has starved them.
And the same goes for social movements. For community building. And so on.
It is rather like drinking saltwater when one is thirsty and nothing else is available. The temptation is immense, the course of action is obvious—and it is also that which accelerates and multiplies your predicament.
So I was wrong. Or rather, I was reductive and somewhat blind. As a practical matter, social media is historically invaluable for connecting those that might not otherwise or in other times have been able to remain in touch. But on a de facto basis, the risks to key parts of society and sociability are also great, and the risks to individual growth and maturity are even greater.
I hereby eat crow.
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Put another way, there’s an awful lot of love, intimacy, and enlightenment talk on social media. But there is precious little of these feelings to be found there, in comparison to what can be found away from it. And this experience of being-overwhelmed-by-its-volume-while-not-getting-it is a recipe for sadness and for feeling the outsider who does not understand and is somehow not understood.
It is a recipe for feeling fake, and for coming to believe that everyone else is fake—while paradoxically, at the same time, secretly wondering if everyone else is true and you alone are somehow defective. And thus it is a recipe for redoubling your efforts toward fakery—which is a very decent path away from fulfillment and wholeness.
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I realize, too, that this position may at first glance seem orthogonal to the last post that I made about social media just days ago.
And yet intuitively I don’t think that they are orthogonal at all. When I have more and have thought about it more, maybe I’ll make another post that synthesizes the positions. That would be an interesting exercise, but now is not the right time. I leave it for later.