Sunday 5 January 2014

Ghosts of Social Media

I like social media. It suits me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I'm not very good at communicating with people generally. It allows me to keep a large amount of interaction with a fairly minor amount of effort. From my point of view, it makes keeping in touch with people surprisingly easy.

But it doesn't work for everyone. In fact, I think it can make some people feel even more left out. Now, this isn't anyone's fault, and I'm not suggesting that one way is better than the other. It just struck me as something that seems to have changed that I haven't seen anyone talking about.

Facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram and the like make it much easier to be in touch with people without putting any real effort in to specifically doing so. For the lazy and introverted yet outgoing and attention-seeking (yes, me), it's fantastic. But I can't remember the last time that I emailed someone on a personal basis. Nor can I remember the last time someone emailed me over something personal. I don't have as many people's phone numbers on my mobile as I used to - I don't need them any more as I have other ways of contacting people. More convenient ones.

I'm easy to contact, and if you use social media (especially with your real name), you'll be easy to contact as well. I see a lot more of people that are on social media, and a lot more of those friends of mine who are on social media, than I do otherwise. It's very easy to have a rough idea what's going on in people's lives.

It's so easy, in fact, that there can, sometimes, be the assumption that if someone isn't on there, they don't want to be contacted. Or that they'll turn up eventually.

After all, the rest of us are out there, broadcasting our availability and the ease with which we can be contacted. And when someone vanishes from social media, it can be more difficult to notice. After all, you get used to missing updates, but you're safe in the knowledge that they're there. And even if you do notice, there can be an element of "I haven't seen online in a while - they must be taking a break/avoiding social media/avoiding me/feeling a bit antisocial/etc". 

Meanwhile, there may be people you know that you haven't spoken to for a while, and they wonder why. Because they're not following you on social media or they signed up but don't really use it.

Direct communication happens less often. Not in the sense of direct messaging or instant messaging - they're somewhat different, not least because of the amount of times they're often prompted by knowing the other person is online. You click their profile and you have that short, easy message.

As a result, email can end up feeling quite direct. Quite demanding. "Stop what you're doing and read this message that I have sent you, which may be quite long". Much easier with social media where it's taken a little for granted that it'll be read or acknowledged or responded to or ignored in the time that suits the person using it.

Some of us have taken to communicating via a sort of post-it note system crossed with instant messenger. And less to specific, thought out messages that take more time.

The documentary "Dreams of a Life" is about a young woman who died suddenly and whose death wasn't discovered for a while. The strange thing about it is that she was outgoing and popular and knew people and saw people and went out with people and so on. When she died, some people she knew just didn't realise they hadn't heard from her in a while. When I read about it, the idea bothered me a lot, to the point where I still haven't been able to watch the documentary. I very much want to, but I suspect that it will upset me.

It used to be more difficult to be in touch with people. You had to write letters. Then you had to keep phone numbers. Then email addresses. But you still had to make that effort to be in touch with people and they had to make the effort to keep in touch with you.

Now, though, a lot of us no longer need to do that. The availability has become so easy that it's almost unusual when people don't do it. And when people stop doing it, do we always notice?

A lot of us drift in and out of each other's lives. Perhaps, now, this happens more so because we assume everyone is in a holding pattern and we no longer need to put the same effort in that we used to in order to be social.

I know a lot of people who suffer from depression. It's something I know far too well on a personal level (both my own, thankfully minor, and that of people who I care about). And when you feel down, it can be so easy to wonder who really cares. To wonder, if you were to stop being that outgoing person and withdraw and pull back, if people would notice. And if they did, whether they would take the steps to get in touch and ask and find out. Now it's so easy to be in touch, whether people would think or realise if they needed to put in more effort in order to stay in touch.

I can't honestly say that I would always realise. Even if I did, I may very well assume that whoever it was didn't want to be contacted, and an email or a phone call could feel far more intrusive. But I could see a situation where one person needs others to put more effort in to make them feel valued and those around them not even realising that this is the case any more. And it could end up with someone waiting for an email and an enquiry that's not coming because everyone else is assuming they'll make it clear when they're available to be contacted again.

This may have seemed a bit rambly. It's because I'm trying to put my finger on something that's bothering me about the situation, despite the fact that I think that social media is, overall, a marvelous thing that brings a lot of benefits. And I think it's a fairly widespread thing, but not something people have talked much about.

When it's become so easy to be in contact, can we still easily recognise when more effort needs to be put in?

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post Chris. I think the difficulty of trying to pin down exactly what it is that's worrying you mirrors the slipperiness of the subject itself; but your final question nails it. (And in response, I'm not sure we can.)

    Watch 'Dreams of a Life'. It is sad, it is haunting, and it does not offer up any clear conclusions. But it does illuminate the kind of existential disconnection that you're talking about.