The false intimacy of social media

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 19, 2018, 6:26 PM | comments: 0

There is a lot of backlash lately toward social media platforms of all types. I think there is still an outstanding question about whether or not social media really reflects analog social patterns, or if it exaggerates them, or something else, but there are plenty of good reasons to distrust or otherwise not find value in those platforms. Indeed, the only reason I hang on to Facebook these days is that it's where the people are, and I only use it to keep up with a very narrow group of people I care about.

But for me there's a wider phenomenon that concerns me, that a lot of people treat social media as if it were the source of real or deep intimacy with other people. There are so many reasons that isn't the case. To start with, most people are only posting their happy things, so already you have a totally incomplete picture of what people are about. Worse, some will compare their own lives to this sanitized view of another. I think people don't want anything more than the happy path. When Simon was younger, I would post photos from tantrums and such, because frankly I want to remember the hard parts (I'm told I'm unusual for putting stuff on the Internet for myself as the primary audience), but others expressed shock and dismay over this. I still think they're wrong, because for this blog in particular, the people who communicate back to me are all responding to the hard things like parenting and the search for deeper meaning in hard circumstances.

Filtering aside, we have an entire culture of obsession over famous people, some of whom aren't famous for anything other than... being famous. Maybe I have the "benefit" of having met a lot of famous people, but I can assure you that they're probably not that interesting, and at best are ordinary people with exceptional visibility. Still, some feel that they have an intimate understanding of what those people are about, and that's not real.

So pervasive is this obsession that marketers have now embraced some of these people as "influencers." They will actually pay these people, some of whom have tens of thousands of followers for mostly posting the same selfies over and over again, to somehow work product placement into their posts. If ever you needed a reason to be suspect of the false intimacy of social media, a good start is the place when that perceived intimacy is bought and sold.

This is hardly new to the Facebook and Twitter era. In the days of Usenet or web-based forums, it was easy enough to make generalizations about a person based on what they would post, and it rarely connected with who they were in real life. We had personas, for sure, but so many of those people went on to become close (if distributed) friends that I talk to to this day. Like anyone, they're all complex and interesting people not defined by words on a page.

I'm not complaining about this arrangement, really, but I am frustrated with anyone who thinks that you have any real intimacy with people via screens. That's not what it is. Don't make it something deeper than it is.


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