The illusions of social media

Social media is a fairly new concept. It’s exceptionally new geologically speaking, and even as far as mankind goes it’s a drop in the ocean of time.
We’ve been doing things for a long time; we built pyramids, we mapped the surface of most of the planet before we could even fly, and we sent some of our own off into the blackness of space to land on another rock and see what it was like. We have achieved a lot of things. And predominately we did it by talking to one another.

You see, the majority of our history was with most of us talking to one another. Maybe to another couple of people. 5 maybe? 10 in a meeting? Let’s use that as our number. The average human being for most of history has spoken to no more than 10 people at once. It was predominately verbal, and when it wasn’t we took our time with it. Work emails, hand writing letters, passing notes.

And then things changed. By the mid 90s the internet was thriving and we were discovering new things to do. Yes we all know BBSes were around long before then, but we’re dealing with the mainstream population here. So it’s been around 20 years of adventures on the internet.

Things were complicated and difficult early on. We posted blogs, and made websites, but they were difficult to find, hard to navigate and infrequently updated. It was still localised and isolated conversations. Instant messaging rose and gained popularity, ICQ, MSN, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, all focused on those same 1:1 conversations. Even chatrooms and IRC were smaller and localised. And when they got bigger? You weren’t talking to everyone, words flew by, things weren’t seen, and channels were filled with people idling.

The last decade saw everything race ahead. Myspace, Beebo, Twitter, the unstoppable juggernaut of Facebook. Social media was here.

Suddenly it was simple and easy to get from person to person, the invention of the newsfeed started to push our content to a wider and wider audience. It was now simple and easy for anyone to publish content. Permanent and visible. We gathered friends and followers, (I’m sitting on 217 Facebook friends right now), we published more and more.

These text boxes asked us what we were thinking? Soon they had locations, we could tell people where we were and why we were here. We could post our meals. And we were communicating in a way different to how we ever had. Our social norms, the rules of grammar, the way we interacted with each other wasn’t prepared for this.

Did our flaws show? Suddenly checking in to where we had lunch told everyone when we ate too much junk food. Why did this one guy eat so many burgers? Relationship statuses left us unable to grieve in peace. How can you quietly move on with life when bombarded by a mixture of “You ok hun?” and “better off without that bitch anyway”. And it all creates pressure.

The pressure to conform

We post because others post. We share our relationship status because others do and we’re viewed as inferior if we don’t. Is he in a relationship and not sharing it, or is he just single? Did she hide her status for privacy or did their engagement end? The pressure of others posting content drives us to do it. We need to post our own selfies to match, our meals to fit in, check in at the gym because others do. Our society compels and drives to fit in and blend to the crowd, to be a part of everyone else. And now we continue to do so, more than ever before.

We post and comment because others share, we interact to save face. “Oh did you see my status?”, “Did you see the photos of the weekend?” as we verbally drive each other to participate.

The illusion of familiarity

Social media networks create a terrifying closeness, yet an inescapable distance. We close distance and come into people’s largest moments. Weddings and childbirth, new jobs and pets that join our homes. We see comments and likes, support and interaction from a huge portion of our friends list. We have the illusion of familiarity, we have the charade of being in one anothers lives. My closest friends were there when I got engaged, when my children were born, to celebrate my birthday or receiving the CEO’s award at work a few years ago.

But so were acquaintances. Old friends, distant family. Everyone commenting and liking on an equal scale, all lined up, all there for the big moments together. And in reverse I am there for others. We celebrate, we share, I like their status, I talk to them on their big magical events. But we’re not close. We are friends. But I don’t know his wife. I don’t know her childrens names. I don’t know what city they live in. And I think that guy is from Los Angeles. We’ve turned up the volume and can celebrate and get our acclaim and kudos on a broader scale than ever, but is it what we want? Does it devalue the kind words from a loved one when hundreds of other people can say the same thing?

The illusion of birthdays

Speaking of big events. I have a bugbear about birthdays on Facebook. I don’t post on everyone’s wall for every birthday. Many people I only send a private message to. And the others? I choose who I would celebrate with. I personalise and share how I feel for those who I am close enough to share a moment with. For those whom I would share something magical face to face. Is a relationship strengthened by “HBTH!” written on a Facebook post? Remember, this isn’t something bad, it’s just in context. I’m not choosing to ignore the birthdays of other people, I am just making the ones I do say special. Like hugging everyone vs hugging only those close to you. There’s meaning in the rarity.


The other side of the coin is maintaining close friendships when time doesn’t permit. The people you love and hold dear but live far away or lead busy lives. They maintain these relationships with intermittent warmth and love for these celebrations and big events.


The illusion of depth

Social media isn’t hurting our real relationships for most of us. We’re still seeing, talking to and sharing with the people who matter. That’s not going away, and if anything is being strengthened by the ability to share on social. Those closest to us can be a part of our day to day activities and events instead of just milestones.

But the pool is murky.

Those closest to us, those we love the most are often sharing and being shared with as much as our acquaintances and casual friends.
It’s not a fault with the relationships we hold dear. It’s putting all of our relationships on equal footing.

For adults, it’s probably ok. For young adults, teenagers who are developing their life long friendships alongside social media it’s getting tougher by the day.

For everyone reading along? Just make sure the people closest to you know they matter.



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