As I See It: A House of Many Windows
May 21, 2012 Victor Rozek
A friend of mine was having relationship troubles. His girlfriend complained that he seemed incapable of going “deeper,” meaning he was resistant to the level of commitment she craved–a lament many women will no doubt recognize. From his perspective, he didn’t want heavy commitment, he wanted light companionship. He had a variety of interests, enjoyed doing a great many things, and wanted someone to share them with. Of course, one of his interests was sex, and therein, if you’ll pardon the expression, lies the rub. Essentially, he wanted a woman in his life, but not in his house. And things were going swimmingly, or so he thought, right up to the time she threatened to end their relationship.
I suggested that he embrace his lack of depth and, given the multiplicity of his pursuits, present himself as being shallow, but broad. Sure, shallow may be unfulfilling, but broad has many virtues. People hungry for depth can, and often do, satiate their appetite with dogged activity. Perhaps she could overlook shallow and settle for the diversions of broad.
That advice didn’t do my friend much good, but the same principle has proven to be a screaming success for social media.
Being friended by someone may not be the same as having an actual relationship, yet the lure of deep connection has spawned a phenomenon that continues to grow with a yeasty inexorableness. What started in a college dorm is now valued at $105 billion as of the initial public offering last Friday, with 900 million people exposing their lives on Facebook, baiting the response hook, trolling for “friends.” Others are compelled to check their Twitter account before getting out of bed–before coffee even, which itself is a mystery that bears further study. In many ways, social networking has become the new drug of choice. If a little is good, a lot is better, and yet there is never enough. That’s the essential paradox of social networking. It is a broad and shallow medium which, in recurring doses, provides the comforting illusion of depth.
Not long ago, my wife and I dined out at a reasonably upscale restaurant, and were seated next to two young couples who looked to be in their mid-twenties. As we perused our menus, I couldn’t help but notice that the four people at the adjacent table were all typing away furiously on their smart phones. They could have been in separate states for all the interaction they were having. But, who knows, maybe they were texting one another.
I recalled that scene a few months later when I read a question posed by Stephen Marche in an article appearing in the May issue of The Atlantic. Is it possible, asks Marche, that “social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer?” Clearly, the four people next to us were engaged, just not with each other. Yet they seemed perfectly content, much like families eating dinner together in front of the television. The reason for their contentment is less clear. Were they simply happy to be entertained, or did they see themselves as a digital version of a string quartet, creating a wireless four-part harmony.
The provocative title of Marche’s piece suggests a possible answer: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? Causality aside, however, the trend is indisputable. Marche cites research that shows 60 million Americans are living lonely lives, and “35 percent of adults older than 45 are chronically lonely.” That’s up from 20 percent only a decade ago. Yet most people own an assortment of gadgets that can quickly put them in touch with others. “We live in an accelerating contradiction,” says Marche, “the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
Not surprisingly, that contradiction is reflected in the wider culture. We are pack animals but, as Marche points out, we idolize the individual. From Robin Hood to Rambo, we mythologize people who stand apart and stand alone. In the minds of many, autonomy precludes joining, which may account for some of the charm of social networking. You can appear to join and be an active part of a larger community without ever leaving your living room. One of the appeals of technology, says Marche, is that it makes “avoiding the mess of human interactions easy.”
But avoidance creates its own paradox. While it’s almost impossible to avoid some degree of messiness when interacting directly with others, studies show that the more face-to-face interactions you have, the less lonely you are likely to be. Conversely, the more time spent in on-line interactions, the lonelier you become. Apparently, avoiding loneliness requires not only face-time but an ability to tolerate messiness. To the degree that technology has become a means to instant gratification it dulls our appetite for the complexities and nuances of human relationships. Bonds are created over time, and require patience, hard work, and trust built through the process of shared journey. Consider the following statistic. “In 1985,” Marche writes, “10 percent of Americans had no one with whom to discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to.” It may be that the addiction to social networking is having an unintended and insidious effect: users either never develop or unlearn traditional interpersonal skills.
But even face-time can be an empty experience. The essence of loneliness is not being authentically seen, and not being accepted for who you are. Beyond physical companionship there is a need for psychological visibility: to be known and accepted without criticism or judgment. That is a task requiring a degree of vulnerability that goes beyond digital voyeurism. Virtual relationships are like sitting by a picture of a roaring fire; the flames are pretty but they offer no warmth.
The instantaneous nature of communication technology produces instantaneous–and therefore unrealistic–expectations. As yet there is no pill we can take to make us happy, but the smartphone may be the next best thing. Just press a few keys. Young people especially seldom stray beyond reaching distance of their wireless companion. Hope is the hook. Hope that the next text message may be meaningful; hope that a certain someone cares; hope that what they post will be interesting to their friends; hope that they will be invited to the next party; hope that the “friend” request will not be ignored. Then the waiting begins; always waiting for the next reply. All of the anxieties of life amplified through the repeated striking of the refresh key.
In the end, as Marche concludes, “Facebook doesn’t destroy friendships–but it doesn’t create them, either.” It’s a tool, an elegant tool to be sure, but like any instrument it depends on the intelligence, skill, and intention of the user.
Social networking does not create loneliness, but it may exacerbate it. What’s the point of having 200 “friends” or “followers” if only three of them have ever been to your home? More accurately, social networking is a by-product of the human condition which remains a constant even as technology changes. Robert Louis Stevenson made the following observation 130 years ago: “The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.”
Substitute “Facebook” for “the body,” and not much has changed at all.