When I first left the cult, connecting with groups of survivors over Facebook was one of the few ways that I was able to maintain a sense of connection while being simultaneously shunned by many of the people I loved most. It was a lifeline, and I’m unashamed of how much of my time I spent on Facebook during those years.
However, Sherry Turkle recently delivered a TED talk about how social media can create the illusion of connection and intimacy while distancing us from each other as well as ourselves. Her talk hit a nerve with me. She mentions her former (and currently still surviving) hopes that social media and technology would provide ways in which we can deepen our self-reflection, thus deepening our intimacy with others.
But that’s not what she has been observing in our current trends. In her estimation, social media has become the drug that prevents us from recognizing how lonely we are or how vulnerable we are.
Social media has changed considerably in the six years that I’ve been using it.
Or maybe I’ve changed.
It’s kind of hard to tell because I am guaranteed to influence my own experience of social media.
It never occurred to me how much Facebook was different until I tried to switch to Ello. In the beginning of my Facebook days, I remember having actual conversations, some deep, some not so deep, and posting reflective thoughts…probably on the level of a blog.
But at some point, that changed. The format changed, but so did the posts. Which came first? I don’t think it’s possible to tell for certain. But there’s no denying that now my online activity consists mostly of watching silly videos, posting and/or liking pictures, and scrolling through an endless stream of meaningless information.
The deep conversations still happen, but not to the same degree that they did.
I’ve always been the person who defended Facebook whenever others criticized how shallow it was, how time-consuming, or how “not real human” it was…because my experience had been that it was incredibly meaningful. But in watching Sherry’s talk, I realized that my current use of Facebook has become shallow, time-consuming, and human distant.
At this point, I could probably go on a hiatus in order to focus on my real relationships. I wouldn’t be missing much of what happened in the time I was gone, and I probably wouldn’t be losing many relationships since I can contact most people in other ways…like by writing letters that say real things in them.
But more important to what Sherry is, I’ve noticed that Facebook is where I sometimes turn when I’m lonely.
As an introvert, there are times that I want to be alone. I become incredibly unpleasant to be around if I don’t get solitude to reconnect with myself.
However, as an introvert, it’s also hard for me to reach out when I want social connection, so in moments of acute loneliness, I hop onto the Internet to feel less alone. Part of that is from the habit of knowing that the Internet is where I would find comfort during my transition. I wouldn’t trade that aspect of social media for anything.
But Sherry is right, I also sometimes use it to distract myself from my own vulnerability. There are times when I want to be around friends, but seeking companionship comes with the risk of rejection…
So I prefer to like a friend’s status, post a song that expresses my mood, or upload a picture of what I’m doing rather than pick up the phone and take the chance of hearing “no” when I ask if someone wants to hang out that night.
I long for the intimacy of close friendship, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate live friendships as well as the online ones. But at some point in the process of Facebook becoming the lifeline that kept me from being entirely isolated, it also became the barrier that keeps me isolated.
Sad, I know.
Especially since I know that most of my friends aren’t really rejecting me when they say, “no.”
But Facebook arranges it so that I don’t have to look into why it’s so painful and scary to face that because it has given me the means to pretend that I’m being very social and very open about my life and feelings without ever actually knowing who pays attention and who doesn’t. It also gives me the means to hide from my own realization that I’m playing this game.
Thankfully, I think Sherry had the solution right. I can transform my experience of social media by transforming my relationship with myself and others. Rather than using Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram, or Ello) to escape from my own loneliness, I can use it to deepen my self-reflection, to increase my vulnerability to my relationships, and to explore the incredible depth of real, messy relationships.