The Subtle Sorrow of Social Media

To experience our connections through impersonally-directed snippets on social media is to be denied the heart and soul of friendship.

We have so quickly grown accustomed to social-media-fueled communication that it seems almost quaint to remember that one-to-many communication was once both difficult and expensive to arrange. Only people who were either public figures or professional communicators were routinely put in the position of communicating at a distance to multiple people at the same time.

Today, anyone engaged with social media is typically doing so many different times a day, effectively for free. Sending the same message simultaneously to lots of different people we know is easy and fun and oh so efficient.

As a matter of fact, the internet not only allows us ready access to one-to-many communication, it seems to have flipped the equation in terms of what kind of communication is more readily employed. After all: how many of your friends and family members have sent you a personal email in the last week, or have actually called you on the phone, versus how many have sent you a social media message of one kind or another?

Easy and fun and efficient is winning out at this point, yes?

But where, I am beginning to wonder, does all this easy fun efficient communication leave the people on the receiving end?

Potentially overwhelmed by information, for one thing, but that’s not my immediate concern. I am concerned, instead, about the genuine and vital human need for specific attention, which is decidedly overlooked in the social media milieu.

Each of us is an individual, with the thoughts and feelings of an individual, the challenges and joys and desires and frustrations and dreams of an individual. And, in the course of our daily existence, one of our basic needs, as individuals, is for communication that substantiates and validates this individuality. Up until very recently, this was one of the wonderful things friendship was for.

Today, thanks to social media, even communication that happens in what is supposed to be our personal space is all too often replaced by the impersonal communication fostered by Facebook and other social media applications.

The rise of impersonal communication

Because that’s what one-to-many communication is, by necessity: impersonal communication. It may come from someone you know, it may have to do with circumstances you are familiar with, but such communication is not being specifically tailored to the individual that you are. This is a new mode of relating to one another—“I know you personally but I will address you impersonally”—and it’s sad, to me, in an elusive but powerful way.

On the sending side, the impersonality of personal broadcasting strikes me as an equal if not greater cause of subtle sorrow. Say you share a personally meaningful tidbit on Facebook with your social network only to be greeted with silence—no responses, no comments, not even any “likes.” Isn’t this kind of crummy? Or do most people not even notice, because it’s really more about the sending than the receiving? Which is also kind of crummy, if you think about it.

Of course non-responding recipients don’t mean to be making you feel badly. The nature of social media frees the recipients from the obligation to respond. This is hardly the same as letting a personal letter sent via the post office go unanswered.

But to me, this is exactly, and cumulatively, the problem. The central means of communication we have adopted in our 21st-century lives has freed us from not only the obligation but, one might suggest, the desire to respond to even our actual friends and family members.

And all this impersonal communication fostered by social media is actually so unnecessary. Here we have the most powerful and widely-utilized communication-oriented invention in the history of humankind—the internet—and it’s like we’ve pushed the one-to-many button and it’s gotten stuck.

The internet, after all, is still an unprecedented tool for genuinely personal communication. The asynchronous instantaneity of email remains a powerful way to dive into thoughtful conversations with close friends and relatives. Texting has its virtues, as long as you let it overwhelm neither your ability to be physically present nor your capacity for handling more involved or time-consuming dialogue. And, of course, picture-phone technology such as that offered by Skype or FaceTime allows us to turn a personal, one-to-one telephone conversation into a face-to-face(-like) encounter with ease.

But something about the social-media revolution of the ’10s seems to have cooled our collective enthusiasm for one-to-one communication, however beautifully enhanced the internet has rendered it.

Talking to everyone and no one

Perhaps the unabashed, on-display metrics of social media have hypnotized us into believing that even in matters of the heart and spirit, quantity counts more than quality. Social media applications love to display your number of friends and followers, while continually encouraging you to find more. And there these contacts sit day after day, all but begging us to address them—which of course is easily done with quick status updates and tweets via handheld devices we rarely let out of our grip. We are encouraged to send out personal details—new photos, new recipes, new jobs, new ideas, new links on the web—and forget we are wrapping them in an impersonal package. In talking to everyone collectively, we talk to no one individually.

Beyond the immediate realm of social media, there is no confusion about the difference between personal and impersonal communication. Even when Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards talks to you on the screen, you understand he is not talking to you personally, he is talking, collectively, to the audience who is watching. Talking at them, essentially. As theater, this is both reasonable and entertaining.

But in our lives, with our actual relationships, we seem willing to go along with the ruse. When your friends on Facebook send messages they are not talking to you personally but to the collected audience of people who happen to be “watching.” But because you know them, the illusion that they are in fact talking to you is easier to believe. But they are merely talking at you.

And don’t get me wrong—personal broadcasting surely has great utility in our interconnected world. Being able to say the same thing to lots of people at once is helpful in many contexts. Twitter, for instance, has almost single-handedly given those who aspire to the position of “thought leader” in any given industry an unprecedented platform. This is the power of personal broadcasting at its best.

I also understand the argument many might make that hearing from far-flung friends and family in any manner, impersonally or not, is better than not hearing from them at all. Facebook has surely put people in touch who would otherwise not be in one another’s lives in any fashion, and this seems only a positive thing.

Should friends be an audience?

But note the context. People you would “not hear from at all” if you were not receiving their impersonal, broadcast messages are, by definition, people with whom you are not close—people who don’t really know you in the here and now, nor you them. Distant friends, cousins many times removed, and random scattered acquaintances may in fact be the ideal audience for impersonal messaging: you sort of know them, so you believe they are addressing you more than Kevin Spacey is, but you also don’t really know them, so you are not unconsciously expecting any kind of direct connection.

There have recently been studies that have suggested that using Facebook is often a depressing experience for people. Articles discussing such studies typically focus on the potential for Facebook users to feel envious while watching a parade of pictures and status updates from friends having joyful and exciting experiences. This leads to stress and sadness, goes the theory.

I have yet to see anyone discuss what might be the bigger underlying problem, which is social media’s one-to-many communication mode. We seem so enamored of our newfound broadcasting powers we have thus far overlooked the discouraging effects both of being ongoingly talked at by our very own friends and family members and of being often deprived of personal responses when we ourselves are doing the broadcasting.

Simply put, one-to-many works best when the “many” and the “one” have no personal relationship. In this case, the inherent impersonality of this type of communication is no issue. When the broadcaster, on the other hand, is someone who does in fact have personal knowledge of who you are, of what your life is like, of what matters to you, and so forth, finding yourself now merely a member of his or her “audience” may not feel especially gratifying or connective.

Meanwhile, broadcasting via social media puts a person continually in the position of seeking an audience, not seeking a personal connection. This is why people are routinely discouraged if they post a status update on Facebook and only one person comments. If they were seeking a personal connection, they might be delighted with one comment. But they are actually seeking an audience, and an audience of one feels like failure.

To me, the actual failure is the over-use of personal broadcasting. To experience our connections through impersonally-directed snippets on social media is to be denied the heart and soul of friendship.

It all gets back to the idea of being specifically tended to. This is what social media works to take away from us. We have no reason to assume a friend is ever expressly thinking of us when he or she sends thoughts or news out into the social-media world, and we are never guaranteed the reassuring attention of a friend when we, in turn, send our own thoughts and news into that relentless stream.

Obviously this is not a black-and-white situation. There are still good reasons to employ social media for personal broadcasting. And there obviously remain many other ways to reach out to our closer connections, beyond sending out social-media salvos. I am just not convinced we are doing this as often as honest-to-goodness friendship might seemingly both require and desire now that we have this new communication tool so centrally placed in our arsenal.

Recently it has occurred to me to wonder if our online social reality is some weird kind of karmic retribution for life in the Citizens United era here in the United States. The Supreme Court, after all, would have us treat collections of human beings (i.e., corporations) as we would individual human beings. Substituting broadcast communication too broadly for personal communication seems to me to be part of the same category error.

Personal broadcasting has yet to make quite so many people quite as angry as the Citizens United decision, of course. But time may yet tell.

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