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Together but alone: how ‘social’ media can erode our social interaction

Because social interaction in the actual context demands us to be considerate of people’s emotion, feeling and context, we usually edit before we speak or write. In the virtual world, to the contrary, we post/write then edit based on people’s reactions. This pattern of communication would corrode our civility in general and our ability to listen to others in particular, writes Kibrom Berhane.

On social media, such as Facebook, it appears that our self-perception is substantially shaped by the number of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ we fetch via our posts. Probably for this very reason, we usually post pictures or messages which we think are attention-grabbing. It is believed that this habit potentially urges us to obsessively hunt for pictures or texts that overstate our personal traits; than displaying our real-life situations. As this action dominates our regular communications, I argue, we will be detached from the real social interactions.

The assemblage of like-minded people on social media can threaten the cooperation and interaction of diversified groups. People may feel comfortable only when they are with their alike rather than preferring to get along with different groups. Trust will be fostered only within a group. People will develop distrust towards groups that seem to be different from theirs. Distrust, therefore, corrodes individual and societal ties.

As we can imagine, information overflow may not necessarily help us comprehend our surroundings. What matters most is not the amount of information we access; it is about the purpose and quality of information. Unless we become vigilant enough, mere information overflow would result in unforeseen consequences. The current glut of information and the unsubstantiated issues that we talk over on social media, for instance, can make us merrily busy and muted from the physical world. If the vast majority of social media users pursue their habits of advertising their lives and trying to impose their views on others, the social connection will be monotonous. It will even disintegrate.

In the actual context of human interaction, social connection/cohesion is the outcome of people’s recognition of cultural diversity. With our current social media practice, however, it is difficult to believe that we – the users or the virtual communities – acknowledge cultural diversity. Most Facebook posts illustrate profound prejudices of individuals and groups against each other. Cultural, political and religious differences seem to be insupportable. As we observe the rows on social media, it appears that we have a good reason to believe that these actions create suspicions among different groups. Suspicion also generates social fragmentation.

I believe that when we are overwhelmed with ‘fake’ news or unfounded information, we will be uncertain about our relationships with others. Emotional attachments among different groups and individuals will slacken off. Our so-called social connections on the so-called social media can substantially erode our efforts for effective social connections in the ‘real’ world. In practical terms, obviously, because the ‘reality’ in the physical/actual world and the virtual world are not compatible, our virtual identity would be a source of confusion in our interaction in the actual social context.

According to the theory of computer-mediated communication (CMC), a continuous communication on the online platforms allows more closeness between individuals. I, nonetheless, believe that this sort of relationship may not guarantee us reliable intimate relationships unless face-to-face communications take place. Therefore, the intimacy that we create on social media may be taken as pseudo-intimacy – we are together but alone – compared with the actual intimacy in the ‘real’ world. Social media can, in Giddens’ terms, dis-embed us from the real social context and re-embed into a different social formation –the virtual community. 

As mentioned above, social media usually open the way for us to be connected with people similar to us. Social life in the ‘real’ world, on the other hand, is about developing capabilities and behavioral patterns to get along with different people we meet in our daily routines. Therefore, our social connection on social media seems to follow a linear model and predictable expectations of values. In the real sense, however, life does not pursue a linear pattern of interactions. Social life in the actual world is not about consuming a large amount of fragmented information; it is about synthesizing and substantiating lived experiences.

Moreover, because social interaction in the actual context demands us to be considerate of people’s emotion, feeling and context, we usually edit before we speak or write. In the virtual world, to the contrary, we post/write then edit based on people’s reactions. This pattern of communication would corrode our civility in general and our ability to listen to others (before we make hasty generalizations) in particular.

When we are addicted to social media communication exchanges, although we are actually with our friends and families, our attention will be preoccupied with interactions with our online friends. This then affects our relationships in the actual world. As sociologists, social psychologists and communication scholars argue, our self-perception is substantially influenced by the extent of attention and perception of people (around us) towards us. Inattention to people who are actually with us will thus be connoted as derecognizing their presence as important social actors – and it will have a devastating impact on our relationships in the long run.

Relationships on social media are not simply bad relationships. They might rather be unreal. Our identities on social media appear to be carefully crafted to impress people rather than to show the ‘real us.’ Social media experts argue that avid social media users usually forget about their ‘real’ life and immerse themselves in social comparison with people in the virtual world. An unrealistic social comparison can also be a source of depression.

In sum, if social media are really social, there might not be a considerable relationship between high social media usage and a high level of anxiety and depression. Studies reveal that the more we are connected with people on social media platforms, the lonelier we are or, at least, the lonelier we feel. The reactions on our Facebook status updates can affect the value of our day. This might also urge us to rehearse a fake sense of perfection just to impress our online friends. The fake perception we earn from the virtual communities, unfortunately, is short-lived for it is not innate/natural. Therefore, our obsession for social validation from the virtual communities would push us to be more unreal in our actions. The consequence of which would also be an identity crisis in our social interactions.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by  Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by  Kibrom Berhane