I keep coming across posts that wax poetic about the good old days before we were all staring at computer screens. They’re mostly people my age, maybe a bit older, so we’re not that far apart in our experiences. I had dialup via one of those free AOL CD-ROMS (remember those?) and they didn’t, but only barely. Yet somehow there’s this belief that social media has led all of us down a path to “forever alone” hell that we’ll never recover from or something. I’m not entirely sure, as it’s pretty infrequently these arguments actually point to data, but rather appeal to emotions. If they point to any data at all, it’s typically that recent study that concluded using Facebook made you feel lonelier and more depressed.
I have so many massive issues with this line of thinking. For example, they often forget to point out that the behaviour involved is browsing social media, rather than actively engaging in it. I’d be curious if kids who went to camp but weren’t picked for teams would be more depressed and feel more lonely watching other kids having fun that they weren’t involved in than the kids interacting. But that’s not because camp is inherently alienating. Correlation is not causation, right? Additionally there’s also a study that suggests people who use Facebook feel happier and more involved. They participate more in political discussions, feel more social trust and more connected. Sounds, then, like this is a tool, not good or evil in nature, but with the potential to be one, the other, or even both.
But sure. Ok. Let’s talk about the “good old days” before smartphones, shall we?
First, I was not a child who played outside all the time. I much preferred reading indoors, playing puzzle games, crafting, writing stories. Outside was filled with uncomfortable social interactions, a neighbor's creepy dad, getting hollered at when I was on my bike. The idea that going outside and playing was something everyone did and should do ignores that not everyone wants to do that, or can. Never mind that there are ways in which kids use the internet to find stuff to do - geocaching, for example, or meetups, or gaming groups. “Using social media” doesn’t mean “completely ignoring the outside world” for most of the people who use it, and those for whom that would ring true, they very likely wouldn’t be interacting with the outside world in *any* way without the safety of the written online word.
The idea that people don't share emotions online is foreign to me. Access to the internet absolutely soothed me during incredibly troubled times. It's saved my life on more than one occasion. Twitter saved my life a year and a half ago, and it's saved other people I know. I'm socially anxious, phone calls feel too invasive, but a call for help online can feel safe and has helped me put one foot in front of the other. It was through the internet that I met two of the lovers who changed my life... one who got me to fall in love with the UK (and stop cutting myself), and one who inspired me to move to California. I got a plane ticket through someone I knew on Livejournal, and it saved me from myself.
It’s not just networks of support during hard times, either. I was encouraged to write professionally and openly through Livejournal and DarkPoetry. I met folks through Tribe, Gumtree, Couchsurfing, in any country I went to, and we became instant friends. I founded Ladies High Tea and Pornography Society through the internet. I documented my daily life and can now look back and smile, remembering experiences that seem both very small and yet make me wistful. I can read my blogs and see how my mental health has improved, how my confidence grew, how my expectations of lovers got healthier. I was able to use social media to ask questions of people, not just friends, but people all around the world of various generations, including “is this abusive” and “should I walk away”. Without the anonymity of the internet and the hivemind of social platforms, I might still be stuck in that relationship, unsure who to speak to or what to do.
Tell me again how social media isolates people.
The idea that life is passing you by because of technology is ridiculous. Sure, yeah, if you don't use it as a tool, and you don't know yourself, you can get lost in it. Same with watching television, or movies, or books. Can you imagine if this was made about reading books? "Look up from that novel, you're missing out"? It sounds kind of stupid. Thanks to this technology I can now find new restaurants to try, explore beaches I didn’t know about, give money to artists so they can survive and make their art, get money myself for my art. I can afford to pay my rent through the content I create thanks to platforms like Patreon. Thank Ada I don't have to pitch my articles to print newspapers, who so often err on the side of the moderate voice.
Never mind what social media has done for my personal education and compassion. I learn so much through hashtags on Twitter by sitting and listening to the experiences of people more marginalized than me, and I feel solidarity for people who are marginalized in the ways that I am. I hear about protests in other countries, hear about police violence in my own, join my voice to others and yes, social media makes a difference. I’m not going to apologize for preferring to make people aware of issues online through my writing, with the reach that receives, than being tear gassed by cops in the streets. And I will continue to use my platforms to signal boost those who are in the streets, so they get justice.
It's a popular thing to do, blame the internet for distracting us from the lives we think we'd be living if we left the screens behind. There always seems to be some story popping up about leaving social media for a day, a month or a year, in search of some truer self we expect is on the other side. Like our medical system, these measures tend to try to solve underlying problems by dealing with the symptoms rather than the root cause. Paul Miller is one such person who discovered through a year of being offline that his issues weren't caused by Facebook after all:
"What I do know is that I can't blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I'll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won't, to be honest. But at least I'll know that it's not the internet's fault. I'll know who's responsible, and who can fix it."
-I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet, by Paul Miller for The Verve
Maybe it's not actually the internet, or social media, that's to blame for our boredom, our lack of productivity, or our loneliness... but ourselves. We make time for what we care about, after all. What are you spending time on, offline or on?
To Gary Turk, creator of "Look Up", in particular? You're from the UK. People *never* talk on trains, not just cause of social media, but because it's not British to draw attention to yourself. Why am I, as an American, reminding you of that? Before smartphones they had newspapers. They still have newspapers, in fact. Though if you miss that social interaction, feel free to visit the Bay Area, where people will talk to you whether or not you're trying to ignore their yelling, or hitting on you, or sharing their life story. Maybe you, too, will then find yourself reaching for something simple and brainless like Flappy Bird to pass the time. I won’t blame you for it.