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Does Social Media Make Being Social Too Easy?

Apples and Oranges

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.

[I don’t mean actual crickets, since those would make me shriek in horror.  I just mean social media silence.  Which is similar to radio silence but comes from your computer instead of a radio.  A radio?  What’s that again?]

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?

Photo Credit: The Busy Brain via Flickr.


1 jodifur { 02.04.13 at 9:12 am }

I miss REAL CONNECTIONS. when we use to meet for coffee and drinks and talk in more than 140 characters. An old friend just unfriended me on facebook and at first I was hurt and then I was like, wait I minute, when was the last time I actually SPOKE to this person. We aren’t really FRIENDS. Maybe she wants her FB to be FRIENDS. Like real friends.

I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I think social media makes it to easy, but it doesn’t make it real.

2 Sharon { 02.04.13 at 11:10 am }

I have reconnected with a lot of people via Facebook who probably would never have found me, or vice versa, any other way, and I’ve been happy about that.

That said, though, it’s an unfortunate fact of my current life that I barely have time to keep up with the friends I have in the city where I live, on top of work, kids, family and all the other things that go into daily life. I go months without seeing my best friend sometimes (we have divergent work schedules and live 45 minutes apart, though nominally in the same city). A dear friend of mine was murdered last week, and I realized that, although I saw him often in passing because he worked in my building, between my pregnancy and the birth of my sons, it had been almost two years since I’d made the time to have lunch with him.

So. . . if I were one of the people with whom you reconnected as you describe, I probably wouldn’t be rekindling the friendship either. But it wouldn’t be due to short attention span or lack of interest; it would be merely due to lack of time.

3 deathstar { 02.04.13 at 12:11 pm }

It used to drive me nuts when people would say, “Let’s get together for coffee” and then they never actually tried. Then I got used to it. Unfortunately I now often say the same and never actually attempt to do it but now that I have a child, I’ve got a great excuse. I would still prefer a real life coffee date. When we adopted, I found my life suddenly extremely physically restricted and I keened to have people come by and visit, and they did. After a while though, visits dropped off and I pushed my baby around craving company. I found my online friends were always there waiting for me, but my irl friends seemed to prefer texts and Facebook. At this stage in life, it seems to be more about the lack of time.

4 nonsequiturchica { 02.04.13 at 12:19 pm }

I love Facebook and email because I have friends all over the country (I have lived in 7 different states since college). Some people don’t like talking on the phone, some people have kids and are harder to get on the phone, etc. Facebook allows me to see pictures of them, their kids, their pets, etc. Facebook allows me a little window into what is going on in their world. While it is certainly not better than a dinner night out with friends, it’s the best that we can do with the distance so that when we do catch up (phone or in person), we don’t feel so distant from each other.

5 JustHeather { 02.04.13 at 1:32 pm }

I’m definitely an apple sort of girl, with an orange thrown in here and there (literally). I definitely love and need the face to face connections, but I wouldn’t be in Finland with my husband had it not been for the internet (online games). I do love the fact that I can and have connected with all sorts of people that I never would have met without social media and online-d-ness, but it will hopefully never fully replace going out and having a coffee with a friend or hanging out with them somewhere.

6 Shelby { 02.04.13 at 3:27 pm }

I’ve NEVER been good at keeping up with friends. I’m just not a good multi-tasker and so, even before FB, it would be many months before I realized I hadn’t picked up the phone to call someone dear to me. This is one of my biggest faults. This was never for lack of affection, but always from getting too wrapped up in life. So, I’m a bad case study for this as I feel like I am more connected because of social media. This is especially true as my friends are dispersed all over the country.

However, overall, I think it is really bad for most people and our society and decreases the community that was already at risk before social media came along. We are isolated and yes, FB, twitter and the like are too easy. So many of my students have their head so buried in their device that they’re physically unable to make eye contact or have meaningful conversation in social settings (oftentimes because lack of exposure breeds social anxiety). So, in short, it seems that social media is a double-edged sword, but ultimately, will not work out to be to our gain.

7 a { 02.04.13 at 4:16 pm }

I don’t know – even I, who am anti-social, feel the need to go out and have some fun with friends once in a while. But that’s pretty limited for me. I could have gone to two events this weekend…but one was enough. I went out for dinner and a movie (although we never made it to the movie) with some friends, and could have gone to a Superbowl party with them too.

I like the distant socializing that the internet provides – I feel like I have people to talk to all over the world, if I really want to put in the effort. In fact, when I see something I think someone I know will appreciate, or that makes me laugh and think of them, I send an email. And I usually get a response, which is really nice. I don’t need an instant conversation (or I wouldn’t block the online feature on FB) – just the occasional acknowledgement that I’m alive. And when it’s more than that, I enjoy that too.

8 GeekChic { 02.04.13 at 5:31 pm }

I’m probably a weird study for this question because I don’t use any social media personally – none. I manage the Facebook and Twitter presence for my workplace and am the senior sys. admin. at work, but in my personal life I am not on any social network and never have been – I don’t even have a cell phone.

People find it really amusing (and sometimes disturbing) that someone in IT would not be on any social networks (even the business oriented ones like Linked In) but I know how they work and they just don’t do anything for me. There is no one from my past that I need to re-connect with as I have kept in touch with the very few people I want to have in my life from back then. As for family… well the less said about them the better. 😉

I stay in touch via phone calls, emails and even letters (shockingly old-school). I socialize here and there. That’s all I need.

9 Ladyblogalot { 02.04.13 at 5:32 pm }

But haven’t we always done the same thing at funerals? I mean, before social media was even around, the whole extended family and friends would go to a funeral and chat with everyone there at the wake, and make all these promises that yes we’ll all get together again soon, we should do it more regularly, and not wait for a tragedy, yes, yes, yes, we’ll do it, we’ll organise a time to all get together… and… crickets. I don’t think it’s anything sinister, it’s just something we’ve brought over to social media. It’s the fine line between what we want our lives to be i.e perfect and with enough time to do all the things we want to… versus the way our lives actually are i.e time poor and we don’t get to do a lot of the things we want to. It’s probably quite a rude way to live… but hasn’t it served us relatively well so far???

10 Stinky { 02.04.13 at 5:51 pm }

Thought-provoking stuff. I have been aware recently that I probably am more social/chatty on the internet than I am in real-life. That said, I’m really not that much of a chatty verbal person irl, although I LOVE fb chat for long AND short chats, because there’s no face-to-face pressure and I can multitask: put the laundry on, make a cuppa, check out other pages in the time it takes me to chat-type. That sounds really ill-mannered but less so than when you’re talking to someone irl and you can SEE they’re looking round or distracted. With fb I think its expected that its not constant full-on chat for an hour. And it also seems quite appropriate to flick a quick message to someone if you see their green light is on, just as it seems equally appropriate to not respond if you’re busy or away (although fb’s tendency to snitch on when the message was actually read can influence that – although I can see on my tab who is messaging without clicking back on the fb tab – modern day call screening).
I would much rather chat to someone online than on the phone, I’ve steadily got more and more over phone chats and actually do try and avoid them. I think its the lack of non-verbals, funnily enough. Skype/webcam I much prefer if I have to talk to someone. But yeah, real life coffee and cake and a catch-up I also really value – with certain people, fb chat is just the filler till I see them in person. I don’t put very much personal stuff on fb, publicly, and use it more for chatting/private messaging, so I’m not a good candidate for if people just want to keep an eye on whats going on in my life as my fb page won’t tell them!

Agree about the comments with time, it does just seem so hard to catch up with people, even though I work flexitime and can usually work around things (except during 2-3 months of stupidbusy work hours each year) – the majority in 9-5’s seem less able to catch up on an odd day in the week, and obviously the weekends are chockful with all the things they don’t get to do in the week. Also guilty of doing the ‘we’ll catch up sometime’ now, after a couple of years of trying to actually make appointments with people and the invariable cancellations, I just figure it will happen if and when its meant to. I’m quite happy to maintain the connection with friends but I absolutely HAVE to see its two way, otherwise I don’t and won’t bother prioritising anything. Somewhere amongst the last few years, I stopped making excuses for people so much, and with emigrating, you kinda find out who really wants to keep in touch for the long haul!

11 persnickety { 02.04.13 at 8:59 pm }

hmm, technology in general makes it both easier and harder.
As someone who has family and friends across 4 continents, and who is terrible at keeping in touch I appreciatee some of what FB does. That said, I do notice the whole lets stay in touch…crickets

But technology in general makes it easy to be lazy about social stuff. It used to be, if you made arrangements to do something (lunch, coffee etc) once the time was there, it was very hard to pull out- because how can you call someone to say, oh something happened when they have already left home. Now with cell phones, it is easy. It’s so easy to just back out of things. And people do. Something better comes up and they cancel- because the other person will get the text in time.
I belong to a FB local book group, we meet once a month (don’t do much on FB) and for whatever reason, those don’t get rescheduled. I think it is because it is hard to know if people get the FBmessage in time, and we don’t necessarily have each others mobile numbers. One month only two of us showed up, other months several- but there is always some, because it is harder to opt out at the last minute

12 Pamela { 02.04.13 at 9:35 pm }

I’ve found FB and other social media can often cause as much or more awkwardness than connection. Who wants to see pics from a great party you weren’t invited to (yep, that ended a fragile friendship two years ago). I find, as an introvert by nature, I’m more comfortable with the old school ways of connection — either long-form writing or a 1:1 in person that is meant to be an in-depth discussion. I was never one for big groups or small talk (though I can do it, if work requires it). It you threw me back into Jane Austen’s time, I’d be perfectly at ease…

13 Justine { 02.04.13 at 10:58 pm }

A few thoughts.

First, I think that cultivating a relationship online can actually be just as much hard work as cultivating one in person … if you want a real relationship. You still have to work at earning trust. Sure, I will feel like I’ve connected if I tweet and someone tweets back. But for me, that’s more like waving at my neighbors than sitting down for coffee with a friend. It’s not as emotionally satisfying as a long conversation (or email), which you wouldn’t do unless you, say, read someone’s blog for a while and comment and respond … or maybe that’s just me?

I also think that many of us who are active in social media wouldn’t have been comfortable in a crowd in the “real world” even without social media. I hated elementary and high school, and that was before I knew that the internet existed–and still had a very small circle of friends in college, when I had discovered the internet. And I always hated making phone calls. Social media does enable me to relate, but I think that’s actually added a dimension to my life; I don’t think it’s stunted my growth.

I also think that the intense connection at times of crisis and drifting apart afterwards has always been the case. Where are all of the people who wrote, in my yearbook, that they wanted to stay in touch? They’re on Facebook, but they don’t give a hoot about me. And if I’m being honest with myself, I have to confess that my life has taken a different direction from theirs.

But I agree with you that social media makes it easier to be flippant. And that’s what worries me most. That we live in a world that is rapidly becoming less and less civil. Why is that? Is it because the feeling of anonymity that comes from mediating our communication through electronic devices emboldens us to say whatever we want, without regard to people’s feelings? That we figure if we don’t have to see them react, it doesn’t matter that we hurt them? (And I’m using “we” here to represent people other than the present company, of course.)

I keep thinking about your friend, that you and I were having lunch that day, feeling badly about the news that you didn’t yet know you were going to learn.

14 loribeth { 02.05.13 at 12:08 pm }

I like that Facebook, e-mail & other social media/technology has made it easier for me to stay in touch with far-flung friends & family members I otherwise would rarely see or hear from, except maybe at Christmastime, or weddings/funerals/etc. My sister & I are not close-close, and we don’t talk that often on the phone (and she refuses to have anything to do with Facebook), but we e-mail each other, & her e-mails are frickin’ hilarious. Being able to see as well as hear my parents on Skype (especially when The Princess is visiting) is a huge treat. And I love all the new friends I’ve “met” online through blogging, message boards, etc., over the past 15 years.

But yeah — I’m generally getting a lot fewer phone calls & SEEING a lot less of friends & family members who live closer by than I used to. And I miss that. 🙁 And I worry about kids today who are growing up glued to their smartphones and ignoring the people who are actually in the same room with them. I see it all the time.

15 Battynurse { 02.05.13 at 12:46 pm }

Interesting point or perspective and one that I can see a bit of myself in. I would have to say that yes I do use social media more than offline communication methods and while I may have tried to make it look pretty or justify it or something in all honesty it is because its emotionally easier and safer. I’m finding that I don’t put myself out there much in real life as its difficult enough just to get past my inner voices.

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.05.13 at 5:02 pm }

You have the most brilliant metaphors. I’m so lucky to have you as an apple and an orange friend.

What would you make of a kumquat?

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