On the heels of last week’s post about unplugging, I had a conversation with friends about social media and what, exactly, it means to be social. What is a healthy balance of social and solitary? How do we determine if our social lives are appropriate?
Predictably, I want to start this exploration with definitions, all provided by Oxford Online Dictionary:
Social: Relating to society or its organization; needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.
Society: The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community; the situation of being in the company of other people.
The root of social and society is Latin, and it means companionship.
Companionship: A feeling of fellowship or friendship.
The other starting point for me as I consider this issue is what I learned from emotional intelligence coaching. We humans are motivated by three primary needs: Connection, authenticity and contribution.
We are not normally taught to identify our needs, beyond the obvious survival needs of air, food, water and shelter. Most people believe what we need is money. If we had enough money, everything would be happy ever after. We believe that because our capitalist culture depends on our believing it and continuing to fuel the economy with our spending.
Being social creatures, we also depend on those around us to demonstrate or tell us what we should need, what’s normal to need, or what’s appropriate to need. We’re neurobiologically wired to blend in with the herd, which probably helped us survive another day in the beginning. Individuals who could not or would not adhere to the collective lost the power and protection of the community. That’s why tribal shaming continues to be such a powerful and annihilating weapon.
I observe around me a vast continuum of social abilities and needs. Some people are quite extroverted and social. Others are positively hermits, and most of us fall somewhere in between. We also know some people have differently wired brains than the majority, and struggle with social cues and skills. Still others of us are more sensitive than the norm (whatever that is) and are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in social situations.
So what does it mean to be appropriately, healthily, normally social?
The answer depends on the individual asking the question. The happiest and healthiest balance between connection, authenticity and contribution for each individual is as unique as our fingerprint, and it changes. What we need at 20 may not be what we need at 40, or 60. Life changes, we change, and our needs change.
it’s fascinating to remember Facebook was created by a brilliant young college man who struggled with social skills; specifically, finding sexual partners. In the beginning, Facebook was, in essence, a prehistoric dating app, and just about as sensitive and romantic! Of course, most college men aren’t looking for sensitivity or romance. They’re looking for sex.
In 15 years (isn’t that amazing?) our social intercourse has been entirely transformed. Some say our amazing connectivity is an enormous step forward. Others are beginning to ask important questions about the effectiveness and/or appropriateness of social media. Is it a useful tool we can master and control, or is at weapon that steals our power? Is it a positive advance that enlightens, informs and connects, demonstrably creating a happier, healthier, more compassionate society, or is it manipulative, divisive, addictive, and destructive?
It seems to me social media is exactly like a gun. It’s a neutral entity that can be used for either good or ill, depending on who is wielding it and why.
Social media is huge. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. However, people still form societies or communities around shared values, activities and belief systems in the real world. Social media, however, has changed face-to-face interaction as well; we’ve all observed people inhabiting the same room or even the same couch, each engrossed in the small screen and keypad in their hand or on their lap. Families do it. Married people do it. People do it on dates. Friends do it. Parents do it while ostensibly watching and supporting their children during swim lessons (a particular pet peeve of mine), or other activities. Is social media making these relationships healthier?
One of my problems with social media is the emphasis on external validation. This circles the conversation back around to authenticity and pseudo self. If we rely on external validation to tell us we’re okay (whatever that means to us), we’re not in our power. We’re focused on what others think of us rather than what we think of us. We’re wound up in external expectations of what our needs should be rather than what they actually are and figuring out how to meet them.
I wrote recently about normalizing obesity. Giving our power to social media is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or effective. Popularity does not mean valuable, desirable or useful.
Technology in general and social media in particular are deliberately designed to be addictive, because our participation fuels marketing and consumerism via the data we provide with everything we do on social media platforms and the Internet. As so many people are now realizing, including me, the constant compulsion to check our social media accounts, dating apps, e-mail accounts, etc. means we are no longer making conscious choices. We’re driven by addiction.
Let’s go back to companionship, defined above as a feeling of fellowship or friendship. Consider Facebook. Remember, the creator of the platform struggled socially. He developed, as part of the platform, the ability to form a group of “friends.”
What did he mean? Was he describing a group of people who shared and reciprocated feelings of companionship and fellowship? Or was he describing a group of college men, not necessarily having ever met one another, joining together to figure out how to get laid more effectively and efficiently?
Facebook “friends” redefined friendship, and I’m not sure anyone really noticed or questioned it.
A friend is a person whom one knows. What does it mean to know another person?
When we look someone up on Facebook and scroll through their posts, pictures and conversations, can we conclude we “know” them? The obvious answer is no, of course not. The beauty of social media of all types is we get to present to the world the person we wish to be, or at least the person we wish others to believe we are. Our pseudo self, in other words.
Authenticity and intimacy require honesty. Honesty requires risk and trust. Honesty and trust build healthy friendships. Healthy friendships demand we have the ability to befriend ourselves first. Our real selves, not our pseudo selves.
When was the last time you saw a photo of a party on Facebook in which everyone is posed and smiling and it looks like a great time, but the post says the party was a waste of time, somebody got drunk and threw up behind the couch, Bob and Sue had a screaming match, Debbie brought her loathsome homemade snack mix, and the dog peed on someone’s coat? Even the people who were there, know what happened and didn’t enjoy themselves are gratified to see the picture posted so everyone else can see what a great party they went to on Friday night.
After all, if they had spent a quiet evening at home in saggy sweat pants with a glass of wine and a book, everyone would think they were pathetic. Or lonely. Or boring. Or not social enough. What’s the point of a selfie depicting that? And if our activity (or lack thereof) is not worth a selfie, then it must not be worth anything at all, because no one can give us a heart or a thumbs up or a like. No one can see how okay, happy, healthy and popular we are.
If no one can see and validate us, we must not be real. If we want or need something we can’t post about, take a picture of or share with the world (something like privacy, for example!), we must be bad and wrong. Shamefully broken. Facing a lonely, embittered, loveless and friendless future.
I’m not necessarily saying either pseudo self or social media are inherently bad. I don’t think they are, unless we believe they represent authenticity.
Can we form healthy societies and relationships, including with ourselves, if we are unwilling or unable to be authentic? Can intimacy (I’m not talking about sex. Forget about sex.) exist without honesty?
I can’t see how. If you think the answer is yes, convince me!
Is interacting with others via social media actually social at all, or is it a toxic mimic for friendship and companionship? Again, I think this depends on the user and his or her intentions and needs. I know people who are active, to one degree or another, on social media and also have authentic, satisfying and supportive relationships and connections in the real world. I reiterate I don’t think social media is some kind of a demon. We don’t have to give it our power. We don’t have to buy the infrastructure that supports it, and we don’t have to use the platforms on which it takes place. We don’t have to allow it to control us.
What we do need to do is to wrest ourselves from the hypnotic, mindless influence and compulsion it holds over us and be present with the way we use it. Are we numbing out, scrolling through Facebook, because we’re bored, hungry, tired, worried, having a pity party, depressed, lonely, or anxious? Are we taking selfies and posting them feverishly in order to hide behind our pseudo self? Are we needing the validation of others, and if so, why?
Here are some good questions we can ask ourselves as we consider our social/emotional needs:
- What energizes me?
- What am I grateful for?
- What’s not working for me, and why?
If we can’t answer these questions, we’ve lost track of our authentic selves. We can find ourselves again, but we need to be quiet and undistracted in order to do it. Calling ourselves home is not a selfie activity. That’s only the beginning, though. We need to answer these questions honestly, even if we never admit the answers to another living soul. Well, maybe a cat or a dog. Or a goldfish. We need to consent to know our own truth. Then, we have to build strength and trust in ourselves, in our needs and desires, in our scars and mistakes, in our resilience and wisdom. Only then can we dwell in our own power, which allows us the presence to notice when we’re stepping out of it.
This is a good time to review and explore our social needs and lives. Winter is coming. Whose fire do we want to sit around, and who do we want to invite to our hearths? Which of our social interactions leave us renewed, enlarged, comforted, and feeling loved and supported? Which leave us drained, diminished and doubting ourselves? Is our time with social media truly social time, or is it something else in disguise?
You’re the only one who knows the answers to these questions.