The Web has been open to the public for more than 25 years now, making it easier than ever before to exchange knowledge, entertainment, art and opinions over the longest distances in the shortest amount of time. But has it become easier to stay connected with each other as well? To truly connect?
Or could we be losing ourselves a bit (online)?
TLDR; the Internet is awesome, as long as we remind ourselves to use it as a means to an end.
Usually, when browsing through my news feeds, liking and sharing whatever seems cute, funny or interesting, I feel connected.
I love to see what’s happening in other peoples’ lives and businesses and I particularly love to discover what life looks like elsewhere on this planet. Very often, I can relate to the person posting a hilarious video or eye opening article. And don’t even get me started on those nice people who choose to ‘thumbs up’ or retweet my latest posts. If I could like some of those likes, I would.
But there are also moments in which I don’t experience closeness or connection with anyone online. Moments in which even the healthiest WiFi connection does not manage to make me feel connected. At all.
If it’s always so easy to communicate, how can I still feel so disconnected from time to time?
Obviously, there could be as many reasons for such a feeling of separation as there are people connected to the Internet in this world. But something stopped me from solely riding that train of thought.
Because it seems like it’s not just me.
No connection detected — by Banksy
Now that almost half of the world’s population is connected to the Web, we communicate a lot more frequently with people that are far more geographically dispersed. But in general, we do not seem to have become much closer to one another yet.
In fact, there seem to be many opposite signals, indicating a faltering connection between people.
Signals ranging from rather short attention spans when talking to each other, to not even noticing each other in ‘real life’ anymore at all, as we are simply too caught up in our phones.
And I bet we could come up with many more indicators that suggest some form of disconnection between people in everyday life.
Are we becoming more concerned about the virtual representations of ourselves, than about our manners and interactions in real life?
Being present for each other has become quite challenging, as for every moment spent in the physical world, there’s always something happening online too. Simultaneously.
It can be hard to keep up.
On top of that, there are always other people than the ones we are in the same physical space with, with whom we could (also) be sharing this very moment. People that are currently somewhere else, but online too — just like us. People that are probably also struggling to effectively spread their attention between their on- and offline worlds.
My personal ‘404’
For me personally, that attention struggle became very real at some point. Although I did not realize it at the time.
Until I stumbled upon a very confronting 404 error somewhere in the midst of swiping, sharing and liking. Except this error didn’t occur on a web page. It happened inside myself.
All of a sudden, I recognized that spending time online did not help me connect with others as it used to anymore.
An experience I instantly regretted, because I had always been quite fond of social media as a means to reach out and communicate. In fact, I was there all the time. Both in my personal and my professional life.
But all of a sudden, I felt annoyed and agitated by what I saw. And that included some of the things I posted myself.
All the posts, shares and likes just did not really seem to matter as much anymore.
Where did my excitement go? Had I spent too much time online?
Two worlds that don’t add up
Most of what was being posted seemed to become predictable to me: this girl another selfie; that guy another political statement; this guy another family portrait; that girl another party pic.
But more importantly, I noticed that what people were doing or saying online did not necessarily add up to their offline behavior. Nor their state of mind.
And I had been guilty of it myself too: posting pictures of the tiniest happy moments when it wasn’t such a great day at all.
Have we created a new duality? Two versions of our lives that are a bit too much out of sync?
Liking the idea
I used to think it was part of the charm of social media. The ‘picture perfect effect’ which it has on most of us. Sharing only the best of days and the brightest of moments.
I still believe this can be uplifting and inspiring. But — and this a very important note — only if it’s a reflection of an actual reality that has been fully experienced.
Not if it’s a copy of a picture seen at someone else’s wall.
Or a picture that perfectly reflects the idea of how we want our lives to be, instead of a representation our current realities.
A picture in some sort of virtual competition.
How many likes do you have on your ‘scoreboard’ today?
As I was experiencing my own faltering connection, I started to realize that all of these carefully selected and filtered versions of our daily reality, had become an obstacle for me. All of those layers were making it difficult for me to reach others. And especially, to let them get through to me.
Did or do I mind seeing positive messages and highlights from others? Not at all. If anything, the world needs more of that! Did or do I mind seeing pretty, happy selfies? Again, not at all, I cheer for all the beauty and every single smiling face.
The thing that did start to bother me however, was the lack of sincerity. The lack of realness. The superficiality.
’Cause what lies beneath those posts and those likes? Do they really represent how we feel? Do they really reveal what’s most important to people? Is this content a reflection of what is most valuable, most real?
The invisible withdrawal
To stop the agitation, I was emotionally withdrawing a bit online. But I doubt anyone noticed at the time. As long as you’re still present, liking, sharing and posting the same stuff, no one will notice your concerns.
Social media are a safe place in that sense. On the surface, we can always participate.
Would I still converse? Yes. But would I still ‘connect’? Not really.
Online we don’t really have to worry about showing any of our human struggles. And even if we do share concerns or things we truly care about, it’s easy to frame it however you want in a real-life conversation: “Hey, I saw you responded to this article the other day. Seemed quite a heated discussion!” “Which one? Oh that. No, I was just trolling.”
No matter what we use social media for, it is more than easy to hide our true colors.
Simultaneously (not) in multiple places
Shortly after I distanced myself a bit online, the whole withdrawal thing took another turn for me though. Not only would I experience difficulties to truly connect with people online, it had now also become harder to do so offline.
Somehow, I just could not really tap into my feelings as easily anymore when communicating with others.
It was as if I was not really there.
The intensity in which I experienced ‘togetherness’ with most people seemed to decline. I just couldn’t figure out why.
At first I thought it was just a part of growing older. That you narrow down your circle a bit. That you become more careful about who you invest your energy in. Less people, less noise, less drama, they’d say.
And it seemed plausible to me. I was heading towards ‘the big 3-0’ and had always been told this would happen at some point. So for awhile, I simply figured I was becoming more aloof, because my social circle was ‘full’ (whatever that means).
But unfortunately, it affected my inner social circle too.
I’d still meet with people, but I would not really be present.
Instead of giving my dearest friends the full 100% of my attention they’d deserve, I’d put in 20 or so. The rest was shattered all over the place. My mind would be pretty much everywhere else — or nowhere else — at the same time.
Cutting down the information overload
Luckily, we can cut down the information overload quite easily online. We can make sure to see only those messages that are currently of the utmost interest to us.
We can use filters to our hearts’ content.
So I did. And it seemed like a great solution for my wandering, disconnected mind. More filters, not less!
However, little did I know, I had already started to apply the online filtering principles IRL. Unconsciously.
And sadly enough, I was not only carefully filtering what I’d listen and reply to, but also — most importantly — which information I would share (about) myself.
How many filters do we use to present the best possible version of ourselves?
Too aware of what to share
Unnoticed, I had become more cautious about the sides of myself that I wanted to show and which I’d rather not. I wouldn’t straight up lie, but I’d select and filter with some special care. Online and offline.
A very healthy habit if you want to keep some privacy, and want to remain friendly to others even if your mood is off sometimes, but if done out of proportion, it can become a bit worrisome.
In order to connect with anyone, including yourself, you have to be willing to be honest. Really honest. At minimum to yourself. Even, or maybe especially, if this feels awkward sometimes. Or awful even.
’Cause well, that is also part of life.
How vulnerable are we still willing to be as individuals, and as a society? How can we truly connect with each other, when we’re using so many filters?
When we’re so overly focused on appearances and filter everything to fit into the current idea of what we think our life should be like – or even worse: what we think others think our lives should be like – how can we make sincere interpersonal connections?
Swiping left IRL
A genuine connection with other people requires openness. And with that, it demands vulnerability. But instead of looking into those options, I see many people of my generation, including myself, making seemingly innocent jokes about the opposite.
I mean, how convenient would it be, if we could move people to the side offline as we do online? Just click an X somewhere to make someone disappear, like we’d do to close a browser window.
How cool would it be to unfollow someone in the middle of a real life conversation? Or just swipe them left when they bore you, like you would on Tinder.
How ‘user friendly’ would such a world be? No more awkwardness or embarrassing conversations. No more visible and heartfelt insecurities. No more vulnerabilities.
If the content of the conversation, or the person you’re facing, doesn’t interest you that much anymore, why bother with the rites?
As funny as such comparisons may sound, the underlying cause that surfaces them, is not.
True connection requires honesty
We seem to be spending a large chunk of our time creating paper-thin, relatively superficial connections with people we barely know, without actually getting to know one another. And even more so, we are constantly judging one another on how well we are presenting ourselves online. Or are we judging each others’ actual lives?
It is nice to share our personal and professional highlights with each other, because it’s gratifying to share the things we are happy with or proud of.
But if that then becomes all we are willing to share with each other, something is off.
If we are unwilling to open up and experience awkward moments sometimes too, both when we’re alone and when we’re in the company of others, we will not truly connect with each other nor ourselves.
Not in a way that will make us feel truly engaged at least. Not in way that will make us feel like we are forming substantial relationships. And definitely not in a way that will make us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Which we ultimately are.
We are all connected.
Seeking, but not finding connection
Sherry Turkle, psychologist and author of the book Alone Together, conducted a research into the ways online social networks and texting culture are changing how people relate to society, their parents and friends.
She noted that people who choose to devote large portions of their time to connecting online are more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives, leading to emotional disconnection, mental fatigue and anxiety.
According to Turkle, we are only getting “sips” of connection, not real communication anymore.
Us people, we’re social creatures though. We thrive on contact and communication. It is probably mostly because of that given, that it has become our second nature to snap, swipe, heart and tweet.
It’s the promise of connection that is being sold to us every day, by Facebook, by Instagram, by Twitter, by Google, and so on.
But what kind of connection can we possibly make, if we’re all just ghosting around?
Staying up to speed
If you’d ask me now, I’d say the most eminent need fulfilled by social media is that of keeping in touch with more people, more easily.
When I see a picture of my friends’ new born baby girl on Instagram for instance, I can feel so much joy, I smile with tears in my eyes. And when I watch a video of a stand-up comedian on Facebook, shared by a close friend whom I haven’t seen for awhile, I can almost hear her LOL with me. And I can not even begin to count the number of times my heart melted from seeing my sisters children popping up in my news feeds. Whatever they’d be doing in those pics or vids, heartfelt smiles guaranteed.
But what we all know, but sometimes might conveniently tend to forget, is that we only get to see the good stuff of those friends, family members and other loved ones online. Not their real life.
To what extend do we connect when we’re sharing only the easy parts of life and the fun bits?
Just the good — not the bad and the ugly
Maybe the aforementioned baby is causing my dear friend some serious insomnia and she could really use a hand, when all I’m giving her is :hearteyes:. And maybe my friend who is posting a funny video is going through a very rough time with her boyfriend and could use a hug much more than a like. And who knows what my sister, and my dearest niece and nephew are going through on this very day, if I’m reluctant to ask?
Splendid and unbelievable things are best enjoyed together. But we don’t always feel unbelievably splendid, do we?
When we communicate mostly online, it’s not such a strange assumption to think our perceptions of ourselves and each other might change a bit.
Especially, if we take into consideration how both positive (like/heart/share) and negative (ignore/unfriend/block) behavior is tremendously more easily expressed online than face to face.
And what is ultimately more valuable to us, a like on Facebook or a genuine compliment someone gives us offline?
Solidifying what remains paper-thin
We seem to be coming to a point where we’re spending more time on trying to solidify what will remain paper-thin, than on building strong and lasting connections.
When we are using social media too frequently, we are choosing to spend more time on relatively easy and light communication. Subsequently, we prioritize a multitude of online friendships (which are often based on rather superficial and carefully filtered representations of ourselves), over deeper and hence more complex relationships with people we (could) love and vice versa.
The purpose of social media
What do we collectively think the output of social media should be?
I am guessing this would be more than nicely filtered and airbrushed versions of ourselves.
If the purpose of our social media activity is really to connect, now could be as good a time as any to take a closer look at our behavior here.
But whatever we do, let’s not apply the social rules we teach ourselves online to the world we encounter when we look away from our phones.
I had to go offline for a while in order to connect again. To become more present again.
First for myself. Then for whoever I am with at any given moment (including random strangers in the streets!). And then, only after all else has been consciously attended to, for everyone that I can reach out to via my phone or computer.
Do I still love social media? Oh yes. Perhaps even more than before. But now only as a means to an end. For being the great tools that they are. Because I am now learning how and when to use it, consciously, and more importantly: when to leave it be.
If you want to stay connected with people, both in the real world and virtually, it’s probably best to put your phone down every once in awhile.
And not just for a moment. Try to leave it alone an entire night out. Maybe even disregard it for a whole day in the weekend?
Practice making eye contact with actual people you meet on the street. Smile at the bus driver, the cashier at the supermarket and the person standing next to you at the traffic light. Who knows, you might just connect with someone.
In the end, we all know where the real magic happens.
It would be great to hear your thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.