©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
Last week I deactivated my Facebook™ account; today I did the same at Twitter™, LinkedIn™, and Google+™. These were decisions motivated in part by a growing sense of personal dis-ease with social media; more specifically, a feeling that my participation in these forums was not fostering a sense of well-being—not in me, nor in (some of) those with whom I have had interaction.
The fact is, I had been thinking about leaving social media for several months but held on because those platforms have become so much a part of my life. What, I wondered, would fill the empty spaces left by disconnection from Facebook and Twitter? What withdrawals might I suffer in depriving myself the chance to bray my liberal political sympathies in a status update, in forgoing a pithy tweet intended to pin the donkey’s tail on some ass-hole politician. Worst of all, how would I—an introvert by nature—cope with cyber loneliness in addition to the conventional real world variety?
So I demurred. As the song goes, “breaking up is hard to do”.
And then a few days ago, something happened. I received notice—via e-mail, of course—that a friendship of some thirty years duration was officially kaput.
In truth, the relationship in question had been fading for some time. Geographical separation, changing tastes and interests, poor communication—social media had become our only point of contact—had gradually weakened our bond. In fact, as my former friend’s e-mail made clear, our interactions on Facebook had, at least from her point of view, been the last straw.
“Your lack of compassion,” she wrote, was the fatal flaw in our relationship—a conclusion that had been crystalized for her in a single comment that I posted on her Facebook page. Two or three sentences, it was—about something that happened on the Academy Awards™ broadcast, of all things. But it was cause enough for her to “unfriend” me in the cyber and real worlds.
In fairness, her e-mail cited several other corroborating examples of hurtful behavior, not all of them perpetuated online; incidents she’d never been brave enough to confront me about.
I was stunned in reading her account, as I do not think of myself as a grossly insensitive person. Nevertheless, I could see the path my former friend had followed in arriving at her decision. From her perspective, I had become a fervid cynic—a man incapable of empathy. And the persona I presented on social media had exacerbated that perception.
“I don’t really want to be friends with you. I don’t know who you are anymore,” she wrote.
Yes, well, neither do I sometimes—know who I am, that is.
Welcome to another of life’s transitional periods.
Speaking of which, a New York Times op-ed addressing that very subject—transitions and human communication—captured my attention yesterday. “Leaving and Cleaving,” penned by conservative columnist David Brooks, triggered my own little moment of “crystallized” epiphany. That is because Brooks had identified much of what most troubles me about communications via social media—including my own.
Granted, Brooks’s op-ed does not specifically address the communicative effects of social media. Nevertheless, his observations about how people who were once intimate handle the transitional spaces that open between them struck me as apropos of what had happened to my former friend and I; ditto how my feelings about social media, once so enthusiastic, had soured over time.
Brooks writes that “Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people,” and when a transition (geographic separation, divorce, traumatic loss, for example) interrupts that flow, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and estrangement can follow. He further posits that when such relationships falter, it is, at least in part, because, “Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted … by resentment, neediness or narcissism.”
That last statement set bells to ringing.
My former friend and I have not lived closer than a thousand miles of each other in over twenty-five years. In that time, our telephone and e-mail correspondence, once prolific and, I would say, intense, even life-enhancing, gradually ebbed. There were reasons for this; for example, a mild case of something akin to aphasia on my part has, over time, made telephone conversation awkward. Additionally, both my ex-friend and I have experienced life-changing personal loss, the traumatic depths of which, I suspect, could never have been adequately communicated online.
Empathy, it seems, is not easily digitized.
Not so misunderstanding, trivia, insensitivity, self-righteousness, rudeness, smugness, narcissism, and even cruelty—each of which, in an environment of diluted or neutralized inhibitions, can be conveyed in a few clicks and keystrokes. While inhabiting my online persona, I have been guilty of demonstrating many, but I hope not all, of these behaviors. And yet, I believe it is fair to say that often I have been in good and plenty company—which is by no means an excuse.
The thing is, what has become clearer to me is that a communication platform reliant almost exclusively on brief, easily misinterpreted, one might even say easily perverted, “status updates” and tweets—on ubiquitous, meaningless ‘likes’; on the braggadocio of re-touched and doctored selfies; on empty endorsements and smug family vignettes; on silly emoticons, and shares, and never-ending re-posts—in such an environment as this, it is way too easy for an Every Man Jack to lose sight of his better … Self.
And with that loss, any sense of well-being.
Therein, I believe, lies the root source of my social media dis-ease. And it is why—not that it will constitute any loss to the world—I choose to absent myself.
At least for a while.
In the meantime, I plan to post at this site occasionally, and I will continue to follow the several bloggers whose work I admire.
Who knows, maybe someday—when we’re both all grown up?—social media and I can be friends again.
Time will tell.