The Socially Awkward Network

          Image: The Atlantic May 2012


My first “dump” (as indirect and odd it was) was on instant message, the old-school IM on AOL. I was sitting in the computer lab for English class, messaging my best friend (also a friend of this guy “friend”) trying, in my most unassuming way, to figure out when this guy was going to ask me out to prom, only to discover he had already asked out another girl. A little later (again via AOL) I discovered that though we were hanging out one-on-one for a few months (and I must add, he paid for more meals and opened more doors than possibly any other “dating” relationship I’ve had thus far) he resigned to use IM to let me know he was only interested in being friend all along. Though dating was an unusual experience for me itself, discovering I hadn’t been “dating” all through a few measly typed words online, as I did, was probably more odd and unresolved a feeling as any. Well, at least people can’t see you tear up online. Little did I know how quickly my social life would be wrapped up online. 

Certainly social networks have broaden our circle of friendships and opportunities for social interaction in ways that many senior citizen’s can barely comprehend, let alone navigate (expect for my Facebook-savvy Grandma, of course). Who of us can fathom what it would be like to rely solely on a phone number or address to conduct our social lives? Nowadays it’s just more normal for us to develop relationships online than off. Heck, we can barely remember life any other way. While we are in awe of the speed and creativity of technology year after year, that increase of our circles and “friends” on online, is our habitual reliance on social networks for the growth and care of our “relationships” making us socially immature and emotionally inept?

Stephen Marche’s cover story, in The Atlantic back in May, asks “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” noting that, “Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever.” True, we’ve never been more socially equipped. And it’s not just Facebook that motivate us to make sure we have WiFi connection before we book our next vacation. Really we’ve never had more ways to socialize online; We date, we meet ancestors, we shout out to strangers,  we have google “hang outs.” But while the sound of endless opportunities ring as we open our browsers, could relying on these sources for the majority of our socializing be making us more emotionally out of tune than ever, maybe even socially awkward? Marche addresses Facebook’s high influence in our daily interactions:

The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple…

While ideally we may think that attention to an unstoppable newsfeed (ex. Jim’s chicken-salad sandwich for lunch or Sally’s job promotion) is keeping us more intimate and aware of details in each others lives, we maintain a comfortable distance through our 13” screens, giving us the picturesque illusion that we are somehow involved in each other’s personal lives, and somehow surrounded by people. One statistic in the Atlantic says that roughly 20 percent of Americans — about 60 million people — are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Truly we’re lonelier than ever, and quite possibly due to this figment of our imagination that we are so socially connected.  Have we relied too heavily on online systems, rather than our own common sensiblities, to carry daily conversations, confrontations and initiation with the majority of the people in our lives? Though it’s likely that the “people” in our lives through social networks, are about as much a concern to us as how we’re ordering our coffee that day (or even less for some Starbucks gold card members - you addicts, you); we give thought to the issues of peoples lives about as much time as they are current in our news feeds. Our primary concern engaging social networks seems to be our status (or at least the appearance of it), to a point that our brains no longer know how to connect with any innate social graces or sensitivity when faced with a live conversation.

There was a time that etiquette was a sought after skill. It was expected; a rite of passage to finding one’s place in an adult society. Rewind about 100 years ago and you’re looking at 500 years of a groomed era, where young women would have been prohibited to voice an opinion, let alone declare to the world to “lay off because it’s that time of month!” Though once women were of age, men would come knocking on a their doors, at a time where the distances to travel were likely greater and conditions certainly inconvenient, rather than messaging her for a casual date and considering it giving it their best. Our social networks have certainly affected the dating realm of young men and women. Women feel a little more empowered and aggressive, tweeting their mind and using spaces like Facebook to pursue what they want. Men seem to have become a more relaxed in any pursuit, a little more entitled even. If she really is interested she can text him or message him. After all, you messaged her so the ball is in her court now, right? Why call a woman or waste gas money to come knocking, if she can respond with the click of a button?

Even more deceiving than the idea that our circle of friends are so broad, is the idea that we’re using all these sources to really get to know people better. Marche also reviewed the Australian study “Who Uses Facebook?” where the study’s authors write, “In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.” Marche follows up, “Many practitioners agree that narcissism manifests in patterns of fantastic grandiosity, craving for attention, and lack of empathy.” We are becoming more self-consumed, more interested in other’s view of us and less interested in others, making us all the less interesting

Our lack of interest in others, at least those with the dull profiles or tweets, or those with no profiles at all, such as the elderly or those in leadership, has produced a disconnect of respect, either due to the lack of interest or depth in how to be interested. Or how to be respectful, honorable and tactful for that matter? When the large part of our day is consumed by communicating online, we seem to have less patience to listen to someone’s feelings over coffee, when all our attention is demanded of one person for more than 30 minutes (especially when online we could be messaging Sally, while we avoid Joe’s open wounds and let him bleed a little longer than we would if we were sitting across from him.) Because God forbid we have to face confrontation or an awkward conversation.Twitter, nor Facebook are the culprits of our below-grade social skills or graceless ability to maintain eye contact with a person for more than a minute. We are creating these new social norms, where actual socializing is far removed.

In 2009 The Guardian interviewed British scientist, and member of the House of Lords, Susan Greenfield on the effects of social networks on children and young adults: “This might make you a kind of person that doesn’t have a notion of identity and identity of others but rather, where you are just the passive recipient of your sound bite and it’s just about you.” Lady Greenfield also emphasized the grave difference between electronic interactions versus spoken conversations which involve risk for an individual, comparing a realization of our substitution for relationships, like that keen awareness of dietary substitutions in our Nation:

Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.

So much time online may be draining us of empathy, or common sense in how to handle conversations. Then again, when we can easily pick and choose the layout of our relationships and direction of our conversations online, maybe we just don’t have the patience anymore. As I continue to explain to my parents my distaste over prepackaged turkey slices, I wonder if Lady Greenfield is right. Will my children one day be able to realize the abnormal norms of online “friendships” and networks that they will one day be born into, or will we one day pull back into needing more “real time”? At this rate, when that day comes we may be too detached to comprehend our underdeveloped emotional skills.