Are We Less Social Because Of Our Reliance On Social Media?

Isolation doesn't come from social media, but from how you live your life, and you can make bad choices no matter where you are.

May 12, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

A friend of mine passed on this video the other day (via Facebook, naturally).

It's an, uhm, "spoken word film for an online generation." The premise: we spend too much time staring into our phones, faffing about on social media, and ignoring the "real world," and we should look up more. Over the course of the video, a hypothetical love story unfolds as a man stops a woman to ask for directions on the street, treating us to the most heteronormative of life dreams: boy meets girl, they get married, they have children, their children have children, etc etc.

At the end of the video, the story loops back around to the man on the street, looking up directions in his phone as people whizz by, and we're told that the love story never happened because he didn't bother to interact. 

Basically, this video suggests that if you use social media, and are active on the Internet, you'll live sad and alone. Scored with depressing piano music, the film is supposed to make us feel guilty for all those times we're "opening our laptops and shutting our doors." Or shutting our gobs on commuter trains because no one wants to talk to random people on a train at 6:00 AM. It frames the Internet, and social media, as inherently isolating, an attitude I see repeated frequently these days. 

In contrast, I just finished reading "I'm still here: back online after a year without the internet," Paul Miller's account of what happened when he switched off for a year.

"One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was 'corrupting my soul,'" he begins, echoing common attitudes about how social media is tearing us apart and allowing us to live on isolated islands of thought. And at first, he seemed to find his experiment invigorating, even freeing, to some extent, as he shifted his life patterns without the Internet to fill the gap. But over time, things changed, and he started to realize that isolation doesn't come from social media, but from how you live your life, and you can make bad choices no matter where you are.

A year in, I don't ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don't go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.

This is what happened when Miller "looked up," as exhorted to do in Gary Turk's short film. He found more of the same. Because socialization and life enrichment, the possibility of meeting people and the freedom of doing what you want, doesn't come from drawing distinctions between virtual and physical spaces. It comes from the decisions you make when it comes to how you spend your time and where you spend it, and how you decide to spend your energy.

As I type, I'm fielding emails to make plans for the weekend. Some of them are plans with people I've met through the Internet who've become close friends -- we're meeting up for a game night and possible food, and I'm looking forward to sitting on a soft couch with a warm cat and being among friends. For that matter, when I'm in the Bay Area, I live with someone I met on the Internet.

I'm also meeting up with old school friends, though, and with someone I randomly struck up a conversation with at a Night Vale Live show. After a brief discussion on the subject of his immense hat, I offered him a ride home to the East Bay as he was about to miss the last train, and lo and behold, we became friends. All of these people have come into my life via different means and they're equally valuable to me no matter how we formed our connections with each other.

We connected because we wanted to, because we were in the right place at the right time, because someone was willing to make the first move and reach out a hand, send an email, or comment on a blog post. Social media doesn't take that ability away. If anything, it enhances it, creating rich networks of people I would never have been exposed to otherwise, and making me feel more confident about approaching people. 

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Selfie? Checking email? 2048? Who knows!

Especially living in physical isolation for many years, as I did when I lived full time in the wilds of Northern California, the Internet was my lifeline. It was the place where I found people who thought like me, and didn't think like me but were willing to challenge me and have interesting conversations with me. It was the place where I learned things and met fascinating people and was introduced to concepts, ideas, media, and things that I never would have found on my own. It was the place where I forged a career. 

To say that my Internet friends don't matter -- even if some of my friends in the Internet are people I've never met -- is ridiculous. Being social with them, and interacting with them, is a huge part of my day. Sometimes it's an email or exchange on Twitter, sometimes it's a comment on an Instagram photo or, yes, a simple "like" on Facebook, an "I see you, and you matter." My life is enriched by the tremendous diversity, breadth of experience, and depth of knowledge represented by the people I met because I can look down as well as up; I can look at a screen and still go for a walk on the headlands with a friend at the end of the day and both things are a huge part of my life. 

I say balls to people like Gary Turk. If it's love you want, Robin Coe and Matthew Fleming met on Instagram. They have a love story for the ages. Even when Robin has grueling headaches and can't leave her home, she interacts with her hundreds of thousands of followers, instead of feeling trapped and isolated. Is their love less important, or less valuable? Some argue that Internet love may actually be more lasting than that founded in in-person encounters and meetings.

If it's friendships and social movements, what about the vast network of Nerdfighters? Or the rise of social change mediated through sites like Twitter? The Internet is a place where amazing things can and do happen if you want to make it so -- just like real life. And, just like real life, it can also be a place of isolation and loneliness if you want it to be. 

The Internet doesn't destroy lives and ruin society: it takes people to do that.