Over the last 20+ years, perhaps the single most significant technological change (in terms of the number of people it touches daily) is the rise of the internet.
It impacts all sorts of areas of daily life; from marketing, to how many jobs are done, and even how we interact on a daily basis. One of the newer ways the internet is used is social media. A few years ago I had never even heard of social media, but now “social media” has become part of the social consciousness.
One of the catchphrases of this change is that we are now living in the “connected” era.
The Connected Era.
I saw a recent study that said in North America the average person has almost three devices that connect to the internet. Initially most people connected to the internet with a computer, and although they are still commonly used they are increasingly replaced by tablets and smartphones. Devices that allow us to continue to be “connected” wherever we are, 24-7.
The internet and social media allows us to connect with almost anyone in the world. We can keep up with them and know what is going on in their lives in ways we never could before.
But this seems to come with a cost.
One of the ironies of today’s world is that through technology we have many more opportunities to be “connected”. Yet at the same time, depression and anxiety levels are increasing dramatically, and many people seem to feel more disconnected in their lives than ever. And there is a growing belief that technology is playing a significant role.
The Social Media Age
Over the years I lost touch with one of my closest childhood friends, and due to Facebook I now have a bit of a window into his life that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible, which is great.
I have a brother on the other side of the country, and although he doesn’t post much I am able to periodically see my nephew and niece due to social media.
Hell, I have another brother who lives in the SAME city as me, and I find out more about him through social media than I do through actually talking with him (which is pretty damned sad if you think about it).
Furthermore, this blog is only possible due to online connectivity. It’s a great outlet for me, and through it I’ve come to get to “know” a handful of people around the world that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and hopefully my words have been able to give hope to some people, or at least let them know that they aren’t alone.
So yeah, there’s a lot of good that can come from this world of online connectedness. It’s just a tool though, and all tools have both positive and negative sides.
The Importance of Connection
In my last two posts I have talked about the importance of connection. True connection with another person is a feeling of being seen, heard and valued by that person (and feeling the same for them in return). It’s an intangible energy that can be thought of as closeness, or intimacy. And it’s a key component of love.
I believe that kind of connection is a basic human need. But it can be difficult to achieve, because it requires us to be able to be in the moment and it also requires us to be vulnerable with another person.
And this is where the dark side of online connectedness comes in.
The Highlight Reel
We all crave connection, but connection isn’t easy because it requires us to be vulnerable with someone else and to allow them to see our true self.
And that can be scary as hell.
For many, a fear of rejection and of not being accepted causes them to keep others at arm’s length; either limiting intimacy in the relationships they do have, or keeping them alone.
Social media gives us an avenue to partially fill this void, without all the risk associated with it.
One problem is, with an online persona we can be whoever we want to be. And I’m not talking about the whole “your internet girlfriend is really a 40 year old man” type of fake persona, or retouching images like they do for models.
What I mean is, we get to be very careful about how we portray ourselves. We are selective in what pictures we put up of ourselves, and what sort of things we post.
Thing is, it’s not real. Well it is, but it’s more like a highlight reel of a person’s life. Their life doesn’t always look like that!!!
I recently went on a car trip and posted pictures from it to my facebook account. The pictures are the sanitized version of the trip, with everyone “smiling and happy”.
There are no pics of my kids continually arguing in the backseat while I drove, or my son getting carsick (that was fun). There are no pictures depicting my stress level when my check engine light came on in the mountains and I was about an hour away from the nearest service station.
But that stuff was all part of my trip, and it’s part of life. And when looking at online profiles, it’s easy to forget that.
It’s easy to look at the highlights of other people’s lives, and either consciously or subconsciously compare them to your own. And since you know about all the details of your own life, it’s easy to imagine that everyone life is better than your own. Funner, more exciting, and happier.
And our own life will often feel lacking by comparison.
Fear of Missing Out
Another problem with social media is a fear of missing out (yeah, that’s actually “a thing”).
Fear of missing out (FoMo) is related to anxiety, and is where someone has a desire to continually see what others are doing due to a fear on what they could be missing out on. Instead of being able to live in the moment there is a fear of making “the wrong choice”, and time spent ruminating about “how things could be different”.
Wikipedia describes this as follows:
On one hand, modern technologies (e.g., mobile phones, smartphones) and social networking services (e.g., Facebook,Twitter) provide a unique opportunity for people to be socially engaged with a reduced “cost of admission”. On the other hand, mediated communication perpetuates an increased reliance on the Internet. A psychological dependence to being online could result in anxiety when one feels disconnected, thereby leading to a fear of missing out or even pathological Internet use. As a consequence, FoMO is perceived to have negative influences on people’s psychological health and well-being, because it could contribute to people’s negative mood and depressed feelings.
FoMO may drive someone to constantly look for a better or more interesting connection with others, abandoning current connections to do so, without realizing that what they move to is not necessarily better, just different.
For people who grapple with FoMO, social media involvement could be attractive because it serves as a convenient tool to be socially connected with a relatively low cost. However, social media could not completely substitute face-to-face communication. Therefore, people with FoMO end up with a higher level of loneliness and isolation, which leads to more FoMO.
The Golden Triangle
One of my life philosophies (stolen from the business world) is the Golden Triangle. Basically, everything in our life is fighting for limited resources. We only have so much time and energy, and the quality of everything we do is impacted by how much time and energy we are able to devote to things. As a general rule, if we want something to be good (or great), we need to put time into it. And the more time/effort we put into something the better it can be.
This has huge implications for our connections and the world of social media.
Look, back in grade two I may have been great friends with little Billy who lived a few houses away. And yeah, in todays world I can probably look him up, send him a friend request and catch up on his life. And yeah, it’s would probably be great to see him again and laugh about the things we did.
But every time I do that, I am taking away from time I am able to devote to something else.
Do I REALLY need to spend a bunch of time looking at the lives of people I would likely never see or hear from outside of social media? It may seem like a harmless diversion, and it often is. But it can also start to negatively impact our lives and relationships.
A while back I wrote a post called You can have anything (just not everything). We CAN’T have everything, and attempting to means we stretch ourselves too thin while reducing the quality of the things we DO have.
We need to pick and choose what’s really important to us, and allocate our energies accordingly. And sometimes that means letting go of things that we would like. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just life.
The connected era can make it really hard though, especially when the tools we use for it are literally designed to make us “feel good”. Companies spend a ton of money on trying to understand human psychology, and the way our brains reward system works. And this trickles down to the products they create and market.
The “ding” of a message coming in, seeing the number of “likes” that you get on a picture or a post, the friend request. All these mechanisms are designed to release dopamine, and make us “feel good”. And that sort of instant gratification is often easier than the effort required sustaining our relationships in everyday life. Kind of like escaping into substance abuse and affairs, it’s so much easier to escape into the world of online connection than it is to face the connections we have in real life.
With that I’ll leave you with two questions to ask yourself:
- What REALLY matters to you?
- Do your actions reflect that?