Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Loneliness: Social Media

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I suspect that most people feel this way.

On the one hand, social media has been a boon to my existence. It’s brought people back into my life that I thought were lost to me forever. It’s helped me forge friendships with people I’ve never met in real life. It’s also let me stay in contact with all the wonderful people I’ve met these last six or so years, while we’ve been moving frequently. It helps keep me informed of what’s going on in the world. It makes me laugh every day, and sometimes it even helps me feel better when I’m down.

On the other hand, social media has been a bane of my existence. It makes me feel pressured, like I need to prove to everyone how popular I am. Whether I spend too much time on it or no time at all, I feel like the message people are getting is that I don’t have a “real” life. A lot of people (including people I think are awesome when I see them in person) are jerks on social media. It’s usually so full of bad news that it depresses me, or so full of everyone bitching about inane things that it annoys me. It also frequently makes me feel like I’m missing out on something.

I go through periods where I do a lot of “nothing.” I stay home, watch shows and movies, read, write, and play games. I try not to indulge too much in these periods, because I know that I’ll never get to the end of my life and wish that I’d sat around the house more. But sometimes it feels like how I want to spend my time for a few days, and I think that’s okay. I always enjoy myself. I never feel bad about it - until I get online and see all the awesome stuff that everyone else has been doing while I’ve been a boring homebody. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

I don’t blame social media for the bouts of loneliness and inadequacy I sometimes feel. Some of the loneliest periods of my life occurred well before social media ever existed. But I do think that it’s an extension of the human problem in general, and perhaps of America’s problem more specifically. It’s not truly a place to make connections. It’s a forum for us to show everyone how many friends we have, how successful we are, how attractive we are, and how much we’ve been doing. And it’s not easy to resist getting sucked into all of that. 

There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything you’ve ever felt or thought, people before you have felt and thought for thousands of years. That includes loneliness. I think that being a living, thinking, breathing human being is simply, on some level, an isolating experience. No matter how many loved ones you have, or how much you do, at the end of the day, you’re still alone inside your head. No one else can truly meet you in there.

So I don’t think that social media causes loneliness. I think it’s a symptom of a greater problem. It just happens to be a symptom that, on the surface, seems like a bit of a cure. You go online, like and comment on your friends’ stuff, and they like and comment on yours, and for a while, you feel a little bit happier. You feel loved and validated. But then you close your browser and all that goes away. You’re alone inside your head again. So maybe you go online for longer, or more frequently, trying to get that feeling back. It’s almost like a drug. Maybe it is a drug. I sometimes feel like a drug addict with it. “I’ll just post this real quick and not get on it the rest of the day,” I tell myself. “Oh, but now someone has commented on my post. I want to see what they said, perhaps respond to it. Oh, look, that George Takei is so funny!” Ad nauseum. Ugh.

In and of itself, it’s not the problem, but how we interact with it certainly can be. 

The people in my life I feel closest to, besides my husband, are the few people that I exchange physical, hand-written letters with. While all of these people are also friends online, we rarely talk there. I’ve always been best at expressing myself in the written word, a writer through-and-through. I tend to tell people things in my letters that I don’t tell even the friends I see in person. I’m not the type of person who can easily admit out loud that I’m depressed or lonely or scared. It seems like less of a commitment to write those things down, but I’m not capable of expressing them in one or two sentences either.

And perhaps therein lies the crux of the issue with social media. While it scratches an itch, it’s not the right itch. It alleviates the immediate need without addressing what’s both deeper and more important. I think that’s why, nearly every time I log off, I’m left feeling slightly (or sometimes greatly) disappointed. The more time that passes, the more I think that I need to find a way to disconnect from it, although probably not completely. I feel like I’d be happier without it, or at least without it so easily accessible.

I’m not sure what the right answer is for me on this issue. It’s a bit of a catch-22. On a professional level, as a self-publishing author, I see that I’ll need to become more involved with social media. It’s not a matter of what I want, but of what I need to do to succeed. 

Socially, it can depend on one's circle, whether or not social media is necessary. Fortunately, here in California, my friends tend to make plans via email and text, but when I lived in Texas, most invites came via social media. Right now, it's not necessary for me on the personal level, but I think I'll stick with it so long as the positives outweigh the negatives. And when the bad begins to outweigh the good? Well, I suppose I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.


Courtney Turner said...

Jan, I so relate to what you're saying. One friend of mine called out of the blue and told me that her therapist wanted her to stay off social media because it helped feed her depression. I've enjoyed connecting w/ people I would never otherwise know and I love some of the FB groups I'm involved with (did you get the link for the 10 minute novelists group I posted?), but it can be depressing to constantly hear about the great things in other people's lives. Social media is like a billboard, so you wouldn't normally share your depressing, boring, or painful moments with people, yet sometimes those are the posts that move me the most. They show what's real under the surface, those "dark night of the soul" feelings and experiences that everyone has.

Congrats on your book! I think it's very cool that you finished it and got it out to the world. I'm sharing the link w/ my husband. I also feel a love/hate relationship w/ my Maui Jungalow blog. I enjoy blogging but the more I know about blogging and interact w/ other bloggers, sometimes I feel this pressure to "be good" or professional or popular and then I feel like I sometimes need a break from that and from social media, just to get away from expectations. Also, I think it can be a good thing for you to stay home sometimes and read and watch tv and do homebody things, because it can be a form of "self-care." Giving yourself time to unwind without having to rush or achieve or do things, can actually allow some deep inner creativity to happen that may not be apparent on the surface. We are in a culture of doing that often doesn't respect being.

Patricia said...

I have never gotten on social media and felt depressed about all the things people are doing that I'm not. I'm okay with how I spend my days, I guess. Where I get weird about social media is the number of "likes" I get. A normal number is maybe five and some of my posts get no responses at all. I can get caught up in a bad loop of "Oh [friend we have in common that you know exactly who I am talking about] has 46 likes and 13 comments on her post and I have three.

So that's not so good.

I have some friends I only interact with on social media and I'm happy to find them there, because if not there, there would be nowhere in my life. It also lets me keep tabs on acquaintances I'm "friends" with. (How I loathe the improper use of that word.) I find it interesting that I have different levels of disclosure. I say all sorts of things on my bog I would never say on Facebook, because I feel much less exposed on the blog, even though the blog uses my real name and Facebook uses a pseudonym.

And I too, write more real things in letters than I do either on the blog or social media.

My other problem is keeping up with things. Sometimes it's hard to catch up after a few days away, like after the weekend, and Twitter is the worst because it won't go back to where I was. So I have to scroll back and back and back and back to pick up the feed. I could alleviate this by being on Twitter more, but that's not really a solution.

Good post!

balyien said...

I think the reason that I sometimes get depressed by all the cool stuff other people are doing is because it feeds into the part of me that fears that no one really likes me. For example, I start to think, "Well, why are they doing that with that person? Why didn't they invite me?" It's something that I understand isn't rational, and that I know is MY issue. It's certainly no one else's fault. It's something I need to get right inside of me.

I'm still on the fence about social media. It's difficult to weigh the pros and cons, and to figure out if my issues with it are things I can fix or if they can only be fixed by staying away from it.

Courtney, thanks for the kudos and for sharing my book. :) I really appreciate it! I agree that our culture doesn't respect "being." There's a lot of cultural pressure to always be "doing." It can be really frustrating!

Patricia, I get caught up on the "like" issue too! Then I feel silly. Ten years ago, hardly anyone would have even seen my pictures let alone bothered to tell me how much they liked them. It's a brave new world, I guess.