The synergy among users of social networking overcompensates for the loss of face-to-face interactions through the screen.
Earlier this month, while camping out on my bathroom floor, I looked up every tweet that included the phrase “stomach virus.” At that exact second, there were people around the world ralphing and writing about it on Twitter, just like I was. In fact, I was feeling nauseous at the same time that former New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight was feeling nauseous. My heart swelled — I wasn’t alone.
As social beings, we want to feel like we’re all in the same boat. We crave the reassurance that someone somewhere is going through the same things we are. If you “like” someone’s heart-wrenching Facebook status, that person knows you aren’t maniacally laughing at her heartbreak, but giving her a virtual head nod that says, “I’ve been there, kid.”
Social networking is about connection, not avoidance. And connection is something that humanity has been doing since humanity became humanity. It’s just that now, the number of people we connect with increases exponentially, as does the speed at which we do it.
“What is [social networking] letting us do that we’ve always done?” Dr. Donald Hantula, a psychology professor specializing in technology behavior and interactions, said. “There’s very little that’s new in our behavior. We just sometimes find different ways of doing it.”
That is, we’re still thinking up poetic lines to send as love letters. It’s just that now, they have to fit a certain character length. On the upside, we’re saving paper. And if you can win over someone’s heart in just a few, poorly punctuated sentences, it must be love.
A man without a Facebook is a faceless man. His head might as well be replaced with that big blue question mark that pops up in place of a profile picture when you stumble across a recluse of an Internet user. Anyone who uses Facebook knows that roadblock. It’s similar to that feeling of helplessness you experience when you can’t see someone’s relationship status.
You, holier-than-thou non-Facebook user, are choosing not to sign on because you feel above it all. Maybe you think the people of today are hiding behind their computer screens or relying too heavily on face-to-screen contact when they should be making eye contact. But social networking is not destroying humanity or breaking our ability to deal with reality — rather, it breaks down barriers and helps us cope.
When I see that looming question mark or I search every possible combination of your name to no avail, it’s personal. Depriving me of the chance to pour over your list of favorite movies makes me feel like you don’t really want me to know you, or you have bad taste in films or are possibly a fugitive.
Sure, without social networking I wouldn’t have had to sit through my mom’s holiday bash complete with the nun who taught her (with whom she reconnected via Facebook). But on the downside, I wouldn’t know that John Mayer has a tendency to send his ex-flames emotionally charged text messages — just like the rest of us.
“You learn about people you would not have learned much about,” Hantula said. “You come in contact with some very different people. This is the sort of stuff that begins to just blow away a lot of the problems we have with things like prejudice and everything that falls out from that.”
Social networking is phenomenal. We can connect with people we haven’t met and may never meet.
“Plato had a problem with this innovation called ‘writing,’” Hantula said. “He thought that [it] was going to destroy civilization, and we’ve adapted pretty well to it.”
If 2012 strikes and the world really does end, it won’t be because of social networking. Maybe it will even help us to say what we really feel. With a limit of 140 characters, your #lasttweetonEarth had better be good.
Leah Mafrica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.