The Limits of Social Media by Gino Generelli
I want to introduce you all to our next guest writer. Gino lives in Chicago, IL and studies acting at Green Shirt Studio and writing at Chicago Dramatists. He is a member of The Collective group with the Agency Theater Collective and is busy writing a period musical set during the protestant reformation. When he isn’t performing, rehearsing or furiously scribbling in a notebook, Gino owns and runs a small technology consulting company and loves to play board games with his many nerdy friends.
I love spending time with my friends and family. I identify with the human need to want to connect with other people and the contentment that I am not alone in the universe. This is what social media companies profess to achieve, but invariably their products are more of a distraction from this goal. At worst, they produce in me anxiety, despondency, and hypomania. I walk away from social media unsatisfied yet craving evermore. I’ve noticed a directly proportional relationship between my own anxiety and depression and my participation in social media. I find that my happiest periods of life are when I am the least attached to these platforms.
Perhaps I need the spontaneity of human physicality and a shared physical environment in order to form memorable experiences. I notice that I have very few impactful memories of electronic interactions, despite hundreds of hours invested on social media. I could technically refer back to those interactions by investing even more time into reviewing my feed, but I rarely feel the compulsion to do so. There’s very little joy in the act of revisiting former posts compared to recalling fond memories of “real life”. Unfortunately, the interactions from social media that have left an impression are often the debates that spun out of control, remained unresolved, or were otherwise deeply regrettable.
Speaking as a technology guru by profession and an early adopter of social media, the novelty of this platform has faded for me, perhaps from overuse. Its advertised purpose has always been some variation of “bringing us closer together”, but its end-game is apparent in its design: to bring us closer to the platform itself. At the height of my social media participation, I had far less net-time to spend with my friends, and it’s no wonder. Armies of programmers, charged with the task of maximizing the time we spend with their products, hold little regard for any competing priorities we may have. These developers are in an arms race for our attention, using cognitive techniques that manipulate us and make their products as addictive as possible. The result is the current pandemic of electronic device addiction which, frankly, scares me. I do not profess to know exactly where this mass addiction may lead our society, but I can’t help but acknowledge the fact that addiction rarely, if ever, leads to a desirable end. We are being conditioned to constantly exhibit our lives to the world at large for the purpose of producing an audience that tech companies can use to sell advertisements. Meanwhile, are we actually feeling closer to each other?
Personally, I feel closest to people when I experience the vulnerability of exposing myself in some way; letting down my guard and feeling safe to be accepted just as I am, warts and all. But my own insecurities get in the way of doing this on social media. I end up cultivating an “exhibit” of myself as I would want to appear to the world. I invariably omit my own blind spots or else the inconvenient truths that my body language would otherwise reveal. Scanning a friend’s feed to get a rundown of their life doesn’t offer me any peek at what lies underneath their own self-produced facade of artificial harmony. I don’t want to miss such overtones and grace notes in the symphony that is another person. Social media routinely omits these unwanted details and has made “getting to know” people efficient, convenient and safe while also making it utterly pedestrian, sterile and void of authenticity.
I first heard this quote a few years ago in an acting class. It’s by the British essayist Logan Pearcell Smith:
“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.”
My favorite depiction of what this means is from the final Harry Potter novel.
At the end of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows, Harry buries his friend, the elf Dobby, who had toiled endlessly and faithfully in the service of Harry’s friendship. Harry arduously digs Dobby’s grave by hand, even though he could have done it instantly using magic. “He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.” There are certain things in life that necessarily take time, are inconvenient and difficult. Our persistence in face of the difficulty is how we express the importance of the thing to us. It is in the difficulty of doing something that it becomes especially memorable or personally meaningful. (I learned that from acting class, too)
Getting to know someone is challenging and time-consuming. But I don’t want shortcuts. I don’t want it to be “easy” or “convenient”. None of the relationships in my life that matter to me could honestly be described as having developed this way. Making time and spending effort are the necessary components to relationship building that social media paradoxically seeks to eliminate. It tries desperately to convenience what is meant to be effortful. Ironically, it is the spending of effort that cultivates love and demonstrates it to another person. When we love, we show someone that they are worth our most precious and finite resource: our time. Literally our own life. We cannot decrease the amount of time and effort spent on a relationship without decreasing our vested interest in that relationship. We may be able to fool parts of ourselves for a little while, but in the end the subconscious understands the difference.
I’ve recently returned to Facebook after a two-year hiatus. I’ve acknowledged that the platform is helpful serving as a “rolodex” for me, yet I refrain using it as a social forum. This sparing use of social media has enabled me to find a balance that works for me. I would encourage anyone struggling with anxiety surrounding their use of Facebook to try limiting their experience by doing the following:
– Redirect online chit-chat into real-world venues by inviting friends to meet up for coffee, a drink, or a meal. Otherwise, keep electronic chats brief and to the point.
– Whenever you add a new friend on Facebook, immediately unfollow their feed.
– If you make announcements about important events, remove the post after a short period so they do not accumulate.
– Focus use on coordinating real world meet-ups through Events
– Save your stories and photos to share when you can look at them with someone together in person.