Why Social Media Is Ruining Our Humanity


Matt Dickinson recently published A Rant In Defense Of Social Media. As someone from the “born before 1975” crew he talks about not fully “getting” the wonders of social media (watch out, the world is changing, get with it or get out of the way!), I should start by saying that I recognize how useful social media can be. But there something of a generational divide going on here that needs some serious airing. There have been plenty of popular trends in the past wherein the impatient young think the old just don’t “get it,” like arsenic powder in women’s makeup for instance (for that ultimately permanent pale look), which in the end didn’t work out so well, despite its popularity for a while.

Many years ago, the economist Stuart Chase wrote a fantastic book on semantics called The Tyranny of Words, whose central premise is that we assume we are talking about the same thing when we use terms like “freedom” or “democracy” or even the color “orange.” But that assumption can be dangerous when it comes to having meaningful discussions. Are we actually talking about the same thing?

So, the word “family” to me means something more profound and intimate than Matt seems to be using. I’m not trying to denigrate his relationships, I’m making the point that when he uses words like “family” or “friend,” it means something different to my generation than to his, it appears. We’re in danger of talking past each other like lost souls wandering in the fog.

There are suppositions in Matt’s piece that likely make sense to Matt’s peers, but leave others like me slightly bewildered. Let me explain. The word “friend,” as I understand it, has become for Matt and his generation synonymous with the word “family,” as he explains it. And the word “acquaintance” to me has become the word “friend” for Matt’s generation. This may seem at first blush to be pedantic, a semantic distinction without real meaning. But without the ability to communicate accurately we can’t really have meaningful discussions about important ideas. (For example, some 90% of parents and teachers in England, don’t understand the texting language their kids are using. OMG!) Our growing inability as a society to write accurately (in terms of explicit word choice and punctuation, etc.), or maintain a communal way of communicating wherein we all understand what the other is saying, is vital when it comes to discussing things like social media’s impact on society–and ultimately the future of our already shaky democracy.

Put another way, texting a “friend,” “how r u?” however convenient and well meant, lacks considerably less empathy and engagement than picking up the phone or meeting the friend face to face and genuinely appearing to want to know and care how they are. Obviously, we juggle levels of engagement with others all the time (yes, I know, your life is so much more fast paced than mine. But is it because it is, or because you make it so?); but the danger of becoming a superficial person is greatly magnified when we can hide in a social networking Land of the Lotus Eaters run by Google, Apple, Facebook and the rest. It’s the unwillingness of the avid proponents of social networking to discuss this serious shortcoming that I find disturbing. An increase in superficial relationships without any real societal awareness has profound ripples that we are only now starting to notice in terms of how we govern ourselves and make decisions as a group and individually.

So, as an example, I get frustrated when someone says proudly, “I have 3,000 friends on Facebook.” My response is “No, you don’t,” at least as I understand and use the word. The word “friend” and the word “acquaintance” have become conflated and the idea of believing you have that many friends has cheapened and made superficial the concept of “friend” and as a result how we relate to one another. Acquaintances are not the same thing as friends. And the fact that Facebook, in order to sell its brand, goods, and services, has managed to pervert the English language just so Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk can make billions of dollars while we all go along with it, frankly pisses me off. (And yes, I’m fine with accusations of being a curmudgeon. I’ve reached the age where it’s something I aspire to.)

My Russian acquaintances, for example, get pissed off with Americans and Brits when they are asked the casual “How are you?” greeting, and sometimes proceed to actually tell you much to the embarrassment of both parties.

When Matt says that “. . . calling someone on a phone to get an update on their life is not just intrusive, it’s obnoxious. . . ” to me starts to get to the heart of the issue. What he says is often true of acquaintances. But that’s EXACTLY what friends do because they care about each other and they are there for each other, and supportive, and sometimes tough love consultants saying, you need to pay attention to x, y and z and so forth.

Social media as a shorthand convenience it’s fine. But having friends can sometimes be inconvenient. It’s the give and take of the relationship that grows and strengthens us, not the fact that we both think The Matrix is awesome, we both root for the Yankees or the Red Sox, or that we were both in the same dorm room when Billy Bob lit a fart that put him in the emergency room and needed the wallpaper being replaced. The point of real friendship is that we willingly put the needs and wishes of the “other” before our own, and that is a two way street. Friendship is, or should be, a communal act of self-less-ness, not self-ish-ness for the most part. And using (or abusing) social media to increase superficiality in relationships because more is always better (really?), while pretending these relationships still have comparable depth to the friendships other generations developed, ends up with us often having much more lonely lives lived at arms length from the rest of the world.

We are starting to use social networking to isolate ourselves from the messy parts of being with others when in fact it is how we handle those “messy parts” — Do we continue with the friendship? Do we somehow confront the “other” and explore the upsetting issues that may have arisen? etc.–that helps define who we are and how we relate to the world empathetically.

The danger then, is that when we diminish our empathy for others because of our adoration (let us not use the word addiction) for the “painless” convenience of social media, it becomes much easier to ignore those in need, those who want our help etc., on a societal level. And suddenly, when those who aspire to lead us tell us immigrants are the real reason your life sucks, or the poor are lazy, undeserving, and taking all your hard earned wealth etc., we are less equipped emotionally or psychologically to either recognize or deal with the ramifications of those arguments; and unable and unwilling to accept how we got to a point where convenience trumps taking responsibility for the government we chose, or more importantly opted out of choosing. We accept wholesale the idea of a Big Brother like police state where Google reads all your emails so they can send you adverts, and Big Business encourages us to explore our selfishness and buy their stuff because it prevents us from seeing what is actually going on around us until it’s too late. (And yes, I recognize that Occupy Wall Street was a terrific use of social media as was the various movements of the Arab Spring. But they are not the norm.)

The problem is, while drinking one or two drinks with a meal is great, when it becomes a bottle of scotch a day, you have a problem. Social media can make our life “simple” and more “pain free” in terms of the messiness of relationships, but it’s also easy for it to become addictive (computer screens do actually impact the physical way our brains work), and to replace meaningful “old style” interaction that asks something outward of us in order to connect to others, rather than being constantly focused inward. My 88 year old mum had it just about right, when she boasted about having all these friends she’d made playing online games. “And the great thing is,” she said somewhat gleefully, “when I get tired of them I can just turn them off.” The problem was, my mum lived a somewhat reclusive life after my dad died, and she was likely clinically depressed for the last 10 years of her life and wouldn’t accept it.

As long as we continue to think of ourselves more and more as a “brand” that needs constant promotion, and less as a human being who needs to connect to others in a meaningful way, we are in danger of trivializing our humanity, and becoming a lot less happy as a result, even with all those friends on Facebook.

Featured image – Jason Howie