Is Social Media the Easy Way Out?

4 years ago

Before Christmas, an old friend died. A bunch of people from childhood as well as his new friends from adulthood all gathered on Facebook to share memories, and I ended up connecting with people I haven't spoken to since we were teenagers. I was so excited to be back in touch, and they said they were so excited to be back in touch. And then... crickets.

Image: The Busy Brain via Flickr

At first I was bitter about it. My long heartfelt emails went without a reply even though these people were clearly online and still posting on Facebook. Why the hell had they said they were happy to be back in touch if being back in touch was meaningless? I didn't need us to all sit down to a cup of coffee and have a big love fest, but I expected something beyond the initial "I'm so happy to connect with you again!" email.

And then, in discussing this with a friend, it occurred to me that while I wanted to reconnect for keeps, that maybe I was the anomaly in expecting the connection to continue beyond that initial moment where we come together, comfort each other, and part. After all, we've all been through an emotional upheaval. Maybe just seeing each other's names and stating our collective "I remember you!" was enough to get them through whatever mortality anxiety comes when someone dies. And maybe I was just still in the moment of needing more connection, and it would fade for me too after another day or so.

But our discussion raised the point: what if those moments were real? What if it wasn't a rote recitation of what we're supposed to say, but that people just aren't hard wired for anything more than brief connection and flitting away?

Are humans just doomed by our short attention spans?

Which raises an interesting question: is social media an enabler, playing to our human instincts that we used to have to fight in order to have a social life. We used to need to put in a lot of work to have a circle of friends. We needed to call them. (Remember that? Telephones that called people instead of ones that send texts and emails?) We needed to make plans to see them. If we didn't do these things, we felt disconnected from society.

But now one doesn't have to do anything more than send out and read a few 140 character messages to connect with other human beings. And we have connected; that connection is real. But it is also sometimes a replacement for the much harder work of talking on the phone and making arrangements to meet for lunch. I get nervous going to parties; I never feel nervous going on Twitter. Why would I ever opt for the more emotionally difficult act of talking to strangers face-to-face when I can chat with them online while in my sweatpants?

It's a question I asked myself recently when I went on a friend date. A mutual friend connected me with a woman who moved to my town, and I was grumbling a bit internally as I walked up to her house, thinking about how shy I am and how stressful this is for me to hang out with people. And then I met this amazing woman who is fun and smart and our kids meshed well and I could tell our husbands would mesh well. And suddenly I remembered why social media alone isn't enough. That it can't really replace that much-harder-to-get-but-equally-necessary connection of plopping down with someone face-to-face and talking about the minutiae of the day.

I am the type of person who thrives with social media, and I'd never wish it away or set it aside in a digital sabbatical to make a point. If I'm not online it's because I can't get online. It has connected me with people I would have never met otherwise, people that make my day easier, who give me advice, who support me, who make me feel less alone in this enormous world. I cannot thank social media enough. But I also can't allow it to be an enabler, stopping me from pushing myself to do the hard work of being social. Of getting out there and meeting people face-to-face and losing myself in a phone conversation for hours while the dishes go unwashed. Just because I could technically do all of my socializing via social media doesn't mean that I should.

And I need to stop thinking that the online world should mimic the face-to-face world. They are both governed by their own rules and regulations. Quick, intense connections that get us through a difficult moment are maybe perfectly at home online and I shouldn't judge them by offline standards. In the same way that a long phone conversation is perfectly normal offline, but an email that takes you an hour to read is overkill.

Social media and the offline world truly are apples and oranges in the sense that they are both fruits on the communication tree. But one -- social media -- comes with a skin that is easy to bite into and can grow in many more climates. And the other -- face-to-face communication -- comes with a peel that needs to be removed to get to the fruit. Not an insurmountable obstacle, but one that makes me reach for the apple 9 times out of 10 when given the two fruit options.

What I need to remember is that fruit salad is always more satisfying, even if it amounts to more work. And that while an apple a day may keep the doctor away, a diet of only apple slices will give you scurvy. Or some analogy like that.

What do you think? Do you also use social media more than offline communication because it's emotionally easier? Do you think we're hardwired to crave the quick connection vs. want to put in the long, continuous effort in maintaining a relationship?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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