It was a promising premise. Our social networks were going to be such a great way to stay in touch with people from every nook and cranny of our lives. We could stay in contact with them all, effortlessly and all in one place. Even when it seemed weird that they were sharing photos of how well their food was plated at the Mexican restaurant down the street, we at least loved the transparency and the feeling of being connected. We craved it. We added friends to our lists like they were BOGO microwave dinners at the grocery store.
Social media was going to redefine what it meant to be in relationship with one another. We would never lose contact with our friends again. Love and peace to all.
If I remember, that whole scenario lasted about fifteen minutes.
As it turns out, we both got tired of the constant, indiscriminate over sharing and yet could not seem to pull away from social media. We were overwhelmed by political posts. We thought we had enough with perspectives on the Second Amendment or Socialist Healthcare but could never seem to sign off. We craved something about the endless novelty. For so many of us, it became first thing we checked when we woke up in the morning and the last word of the day before we went to bed.
You might be tempted to call this thing a scourge. It’s polluting our minds. It’s ripping apart families. Maybe. I can’t deny that for many people social media is an issue that surfaces anxiety or motivates relationship problems. I’ve heard it so many times that social media has become at least a distraction and at worst a wedge between people who love each other.
I tend to see it a different way though. Is it possible that our obsession with social media is not, in fact, the root of many of the issues we face but a symptom of them? Is it possible that what is actually happening is the revelation of an underlying issue within all of us? Maybe, social media just allows an avenue for those things to surface.
As humans, we are built for connection; we have evolved to be in relationship with others. Our make up is built on the assumption that we will be part of a tribe. In some cases, we even value the well-being of our tribe above our own. Connection is important. Being secure in our relationships is important – on a biological level. And, for all but the very smallest, most recent part of human history, that connection was made possible by proximity and face-to-face contact.
Many things have changed, of course. We don’t tend to live close to our extended family which for centuries has been our primary source of tribal identity. Even our nuclear families spread out during the day to their own individual locations. The kids go to different schools. The parents often head to different locations for work. Our ideas around self-worth tend to be driven by our ability to produce so when we come home we’re not fully present – we’re not fully connected to the people we love because we’re still connected to the office. When we’re on vacation we have the entirety of the virtual universe in our pocket and sometimes – many times – we think that the only thing better than this moment with our family is to check in on our newsfeed.
We live in the most technically connected time in the history of the planet. As it turns out, it’s probably the most emotionally disconnected time too.
Humans yearn for connection. It’s more than a longing or a want. It’s a deep-down, visceral yearning that only grows more intense when it is not satisfied. To our brains, social connection is fundamental for security and safety. It’s fundamental for self-worth. We want to be identified with a group. We want to know that we are a part of something with energy that is moving forward. But, culturally, we live in a time that elevates the individual to counterproductive levels of importance. We may be creating more and more, but we’re dying a little inside too.
Enter social media.
All of a sudden, we are able to have interaction. When we share something with the world, each like represents knowing that someone else is able to respond. It doesn’t feel quite as lonely to know that someone out there gets me. We are able to find people and groups that we can identify with. There is strength in the idea of a group – our brains crave tribal membership – so there is something deeply satisfying when we share who we are and are accepted into the fold. When a group has your back, threats seem less worrisome.
In this world, sharing is how we feel connected. It’s not about narcissism. It’s not about ego. It’s about the comfort of feeling like a part of a group. Exactly what we share depends on a lot of things: our values, our experiences, the quality of our connections IRL. Incidentally, I believe this is why people can share absolutely horrible articles and ideas; at the core is a need to feel accepted and connected to another person.
And it’s nothing new.
People have long made a point of telling inappropriate jokes as a means to feel connected – to prove that they are just like the rest of the group. People have joined churches or faiths that they really have serious doubts about but the sense of community they experience brings a sense of peace. Now, though, people bring their need for connection to the virtual world where it is so incredibly easy to do and say things that regular face-to-face contact inhibits for most human beings.
The rise of social media and its degradation into simple echo chamber silos are not the root of our problems. We are profoundly disconnected from one another. Our brains – our spirits, our souls, whatever you want to say – have developed to need human contact. This is not optional. If we want to be healthy and happy, we require human contact with the members of our tribes.
Maybe, social media is the solution to the bigger problem that we have created for ourselves.