Last April, as the college application process ended, my classmates took to Facebook to announce their college decisions. The massive out-pouring prompted me to think about the role of social networks, specifically Facebook, in our lives.
My early thinking culminated in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the loss of intimacy that social networks are causing. In the piece, I posed a simple question: is the gratification when someone likes your status on Facebook superficial? The answer I arrived at was yes virtual gratification is superficial.
But, as I continued thinking, I discovered that the pitfalls of these networks go even further. Any recently admitted collegiate student would recall that once their class was admitted, an "Official [school] Class" of [graduation year] formed. I, like most, thought that having a group was a great idea. You could converse with your soon to be classmates, find out who is from where, who has mutual friends, and all the other borderline stalking advantages of Facebook.
So as more people decided to enroll in my school, the number of members in the group grew. First it was 20, then 80, then 170, then 230, and others trickled in after that (we have a small class; we are a small school).
As the group grew larger, the frequency of posts increased. First, people posted saying hi and politely announcing their entrance into the group. Then people would ask questions about living away from home, living in dorms, hobbies, and everything in between. I, just like many others, was an active member, trying to help answer questions and asking some as well.
Leading up to the start of school, the group was something you could fall back on, knowing people would answer your questions and the majority of people were quite friendly. When roommate assignments came out, everyone took to the group to cross-reference and share their results. When freshman seminar placements were announced, people announced if they were happy with their choice or not, and threads formed for each class to discuss the course.
When school was just days away, people chirped up again to share their anxiety/happiness/concerns/excitement/grief and every combination of the aforementioned words. Being involved in the group was something to do and it seemed to have real advantages, especially because we could communicate even though had never met before
But once we got to school, the group ceased to be relevant, if exist at all. There might have been more posts in the first two days of the group's inception (with a few dozen members) than there have been since school started. It was December.
So when this happened, I thought little of it. Everyone was on the same campus so there was no need to use the group; you could go talk to or text someone. The days continued to pass and I kept thinking about the sudden disintegration of the group in addition to contemplating the impact (positive or negative) that the group had.
I asked myself, "do I know anyone better because of the group?" And I don't. Not only that, but impressions that I derived about people before I met them (something everyone tries not to do but does) were 100% false.
Part of this comes from the almost two different personalities people have online and offline. Some people can't stop talking in person but are shy online. Others are shy in person but clutter your newsfeed. Regardless, when you are only dealing with someone online, you only know his or her online persona. And sometimes that's the worse of the two and they are a totally different person when you actually sit down with them.
Unfortunately, the most used social network of our generation is built entirely on people's online personas. So we have to accept people, as they are online, otherwise we can't evaluate the effectiveness of the service.
With this in mind, the only benefit of the group I can think of was that it helped gather "background information." You could see if you had mutual friends and find out where people lived. But this information isn't enough to sustain a friendship let alone spark one. So if getting background information, which is nothing more than interesting facts, was the only benefit of the group, I started to further question if we are actually gaining anything important by using Facebook.
The reason I joined Facebook in early 2009 (I was a late bloomer) was to keep in touch with people who aren't proximate to my location: friends from high school, boarding school, summer camp, and other faraway places. So every once in a while I would send a message or drop a wall post on a friend's wall, trying to spark the friendship or conversation again. Sooner or later, the friend would reply and we would message or exchange wall posts.
Then more time would pass. Sometimes the communications would happen again weeks or months later, sometimes they wouldn't.
So did reconnecting on Facebook actually close a distance gap or better the friendship, or was it just wasted time? I think both answers are correct. On a basic level, reconnecting was nice and lessened the perception of distance. But beyond affecting the perception, it didn't do much else. One of the reasons is because when you are apart from someone, having a text chat isn't going to do much. A phone call would ease the distance gap better because you could actually hear their voice, opposed to reading pixels.
Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, constantly talks about Facebook being a social utility. In 2007, Zuckerberg told TIME, "what we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information." Facebook is doing that, but the problem is that their mission doesn't mention quality. In friendships and relationships, quality is more important than frequency and ease of use.
The bigger idea here is what Malcolm Gladwell calls "strong versus weak ties." In 2010, during the Arab Spring, Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker that using social media to facilitate a revolution wouldn't create strong ties that in person struggles will. He wrote about how the sit-ins in the south in the 1960s created strong ties because participants dealt with the issues in person, which forced them to bond over the situation. But on social media, Gladwell says the bonding can only go so far and has a limited effect.
So taking Gladwell's hypothesis into consideration, the uses of social media seem much bleaker. Facebook is making us think we know people better, yet it is only from a voyeuristic point of view, which isn't worth much. Even more, it has created the false perception that Facebook can bridge the gap of distance. However, it can't.
As a result, our generation has a deeply skewed idea of distance. The reality is when you don't spend time with someone you grow apart. Technology can try to minimize the distance but only creates a false and unfulfilling sense of closeness in the end.
Furthermore, modern social networks have created an unrealistic status quo that is built upon constant broadcasting of everyone's life and the expectation that everyone needs to be in the know about everything. This has created a digital ADHD where we are addicted to new information. When someone doesn't answer a text within 10 minutes, we get worried, annoyed and check our phones every minute waiting for the reply. These new expectations, when looked at in context, are ludicrous.
The broadcast economy is that these social networks have also yielded us so much information about ourselves and everyone else (some of which we don't even know about) that no one really cares about. But this information has little benefit, it any at all. Why should I know if you are attending an event, or are now friends with someone, if I'm not putting any effort into the friendship?
The result of weak ties and the broadcast economy is that Facebook is also chipping away at the concept of effort. The energy I have to exert to like something and be in the know is at a record low. At the most, I have to type a bit to learn something. Even easier sometimes I only have to click. And easier than that, sometimes I can just look because everything I could ever want to know is right in front of me, constantly updating. This all contributes to the increase in superficial satisfaction and knowledge and is altering the fundamentals of relationships. The long-term effects are yet to be determined but I would venture that they are not positive for the upcoming generations.
I want to be clear that I, like everyone else, am part of the problem. I leave Facebook open all day and check it often. Yet, even as I write this, and have contemplated deleting my account, I keep thinking I will miss something and be out of the know. And the reality is that I might be out of the know, and it might be harder to stay in touch with some people. But it's equally possible that what I would miss is simply insignificant and if I didn't worry about Facebook, I would live a freer life.
If we want to correct this shift we have to go back to the basics of our parents' generation. Born in the 1950s and 1960s, they have a much more realistic outlook on the challenges of keeping in touch with friends and family. There wasn't Facebook when they were growing up but they continue to stay close to the people who matter to them. And when they have fallen out of touch (because it happens to everyone) they find a way to meet up in person‚ at a high school or college reunion, or just for lunch. But the key is that they don't message each other, text relentlessly or try to reconnect virtually. Instead, they go right back to face-to-face interaction — which is how they formed the original relationship.
Facebook feels like a gimmick that we all got tricked into using. They promised that there were real benefits to using the network, but those promises haven't come to fruition. We pump so much time into a network (on average 15 minutes a day) that is netting us very few benefits.
With Facebook acting as the gauge of social worthiness in the 21st century, it's time we realize that a lot of what we hoped Facebook could accomplish was unrealistic and impossible. Facebook is not going to keep your friendships going, no matter how much effort you put into it. Only humans, talking and being with other humans, can develop meaningful, lasting bonds. You can have all the friends in the world on the internet, but once you step away from your computer, only reality remains.
This article originally appeared on Seersucker.