It has become a truism, a stereotype, and widely regretted – the picture of a crowd of 20- and early 30-somethings each staring at their own personal screen, of whatever size, and apparently oblivious to the world around them. They are engaged, certainly – but with a world mediated by electrons, or perhaps consisting entirely of electrons, as opposed to the here and now. And stories abound of traffic and public transportation accidents – some fatal – attributed to “texting” or some other untimely use of electronic gadgetry.
And this does, in fact, seem to be the status quo, as any stroll down a city street, or stop at a diner, or outside a public school or college, will verify. There is no denying that this is how society – at least of the youthful variety – presents itself in our time. But the question is, what does it mean? The conventional wisdom on the matter is that it represents increased isolation – egotism – me-ism... and, in a sense, is a kind of societal autism – vast hordes of people wrapped up in their own private world and blissfully ignorant of all else.
And yet, is it really about private worlds? If so, why is the technology referred to as “social media?” It seems that the folks in question are, in a sense, more connected than ever – with the entire world, in fact. Their reach exceeds their grasp, certainly... but can they really be accused of personal isolationism? We all laugh (silently, by and large) at the fat guy in his mom's basement, surrounded by mountains of pizza crusts, who spends all of his waking hours on the Internet. Well, he is physically isolated; that much is certain. And in terms of direct social contacts – the pizza delivery guy hardly counts (even assuming that he's the one who answers the doorbell, and not his mom). And yet in a sense he is reaching out to the world (even to fantasy worlds); he is engaged, he is interacting... and, perhaps most importantly in this age of anonymous violence, he is causing no harm.
Try this on for size. What would this guy have been doing 20 or 30 years ago? (And don't tell me this type didn't exist back then; they always have and they always will.) Would he have been down at the local Elks Club, enjoying brewskis with his lodge brothers? Playing poker? Coaching a Little League team? Making sandwiches at a homeless shelter? My answer is: No. He would have been just as physically isolated back then as he is now, but without even the Internet as an outlet. He would have been more passive – watching TV for hours each day – or, possibly, engaged in some solitary hobby (or for the truly brave and daring, ham radio). Would he have been happier then, or is he happier now? Who can judge? Happiness is, after all, a subjective thing, and it's, unfortunately, highly contingent on how we compare our situation with that of others. One advantage – if you will – of social isolation is that it creates a lack of any basis for comparisons of this type. And when someone retreats into their own world (or a world created by others that they have claimed a small part of) they may wind up being, and feeling, quite reinforced for that decision. They may become, as some psychiatrists have speculated, quite happy – ecstatic, even – in that world; the world the rest of us live in, and from which we derive our values, including self-valuation, scarcely exists for them.
Now, this may be an extreme case (but not by much). All I'm saying is that “social media”, while paradoxical in many ways, may not be having the isolating effect they are accused of having, by the more – shall we say – naturally extroverted media types. Extroverts -- “party animals” -- just don't get it. They will use the Internet, and social media, as tools, but as far as turning into addicts, no way – they far prefer the flesh-and-blood companionship of other human beings. And this is, in fact, the personality type that has been dominant throughout history, for millennia – ever since “history” began, and probably before. It is only in the last generation, quite literally, that we have experienced the “revenge of the nerds”, where the geeks seem to have taken over the world, or at least large portions of it – Bill Gates being the prime example and the “god above all gods” in that portion of the world where humans interact with electrons (said portion growing larger with each passing day).
And yet, there have always been species of humanity other than the dominant type, and society has generally had a way of accommodating them and using them to its advantage. Wise management indicates that people's strengths should be reinforced more than their weaknesses are punished. And you will not make loners into social butterflies by depriving them of electronic gadgetry and social media. What we are seeing, in my opinion, is actually a kind of blossoming effect, where people who had little or no way of connecting with others without experiencing extreme discomfort can now do so. (Or, as someone once said, an imaginary playmate is better than no playmate at all.) What this means is that our “shy” or “asocial” types (by traditional standards) can now venture out into broad daylight – with fear and trembling for certain, but they carry with them an indispensable tool – a crutch, perhaps, but nonetheless it constitutes a kind of umbilical cord... lifeline... “bubble”. They can venture into dark corners and be less afraid, because they have their own personal help line.
But why is this? -- because it's not obvious. Why would carrying some electronic gadget into the wild and threatening real world make one feel safer? It's not as though one can call 911 and report feelings of low self worth. What it is – it seems to me – is a kind of longing for company, and companionship, and belonging, and even affiliation (as in “I'm a member of _____”), but that longing has always been thwarted by the down side – having to deal with social ambiguities and the messiness of personal relationships and interaction. Power games, status games, people saying things they don't believe – these are all very confusing and disorienting to certain types of our fellow human beings (call them “Autism Spectrum” types or whatever, but they are who they are). (I've often felt that “hell on earth” for these folks has to be the “cocktail party”, where it's all about social dominance, status, small talk, game playing, and who can talk the loudest... and nothing even remotely genuine.)
So what is accomplished by opting for “social media” over real society? You get to sort out the good from the bad – the pluses from the minuses. You get to connect with like minds, or even soul mates, with minimal risk. (It's so much easier to exit an Internet page than to exit a party!) You get some of the satisfactions – though certainly not all – of social contact and interaction, while minimizing the damages (to yourself, and possibly to others as well).
So it seems to me that the “bottom line” of social media has to be considered on the plus side, because it does expand opportunities for vast numbers of our fellow citizens. Now, having said that, it's also true that for the, let's say, “marginal” types, who are perfectly capable of interacting in traditional ways, social media can become an easy out – a kind of handy escape route with which to avoid responsibility and to achieve emotional isolation. An emoticon is a sterile, shorthand substitute for an elaborate array of facial expressions, body language, and verbal expression – so yes, it can be for people in a hurry, but is can also be for lazy people and yes, it can be habit forming. It's a miniaturized form of emotional isolation – the ability to express a feeling, or a pseudo-feeling, or a feeling that you think other people think you ought to have but you don't. And – most importantly of all, perhaps – it protects you from feedback – from contradiction... from getting a message that your feelings might be foolish or “wrong”.
And the emoticon is just one of countless tools, appendages, and garnishes that enhance the appeal of the social media. There is also the appeal of total anonymity – available in some applications, not in others. So in a sense, these social media have created, or carved out, a new life style and a new demographic – a silent minority, if you will, who have finally found a voice. And yes, they may shape behavior in some respects – rewarding actions that are compatible with the social media world and punishing others, so that the participants become, in a sense, creatures (if not creations) of the social media. (But aren't we all creatures of technology, communications, and information to some extent? No sense picking out one group and accusing them of being any more passive than the rest of us.)
But as far as causing a major upheaval in the distribution of personality types – no. I don't believe this phenomenon can turn sociable people into isolated wallflowers, hunched over a tiny screen at a corner table in Starbucks. What it may do is expand their options – introduce more (previously unknown) levels of interaction into their lives – and how can this be bad? And it may even be a shield, of sorts, against some unpleasant realization – like, how ultimately dull and uninteresting your date is, and what on earth are you going to do for the rest of the evening? The answer is, you whip out your respective gadgets and all is well. (And we've all seen this on any number of occasions; no sense denying it.)
Any discussion of this type – where a technological revolution of some sort is met with ambivalence – has to at least include the question, would you go back? Would you be willing to wave a magic wand and make it all go away, then have to deal with the consequences? It would take a hard-core Luddite to answer this in the affirmative when it came to social media – and I, for one, am not about to do it.