I was at a family gathering the other day and I took a quick sweep of the room. I was struck by the silence that engulfed us. When we were kids, a minute without the adults used to be enough for us to get into unimaginable mischief, but now we’ve been left to our own devices for hours, yet not one of us were actually talking; no; instead of interacting with each other, we each seemed to be fascinated and absorbed with the same thing, the thing that illuminated our faces with a blue light, only to show blank and vacant expressions- the Smartphone.
Smartphones and the multitude of social media platforms that they open to us are relatively new to the world, and yet we humans don’t seem to have had any problem with adapting our behaviors and social patterns so as to accommodate them. We’ve adapted so much, that some of us can go on for days on end without actually speaking to someone living in the same house with us. And it is for this reason that we ought to pause for a second and ask ourselves, why was social media invented in the first place?
Social Media was first born with the intention of connecting people across the world not only in a professional sense, but also in a more informal social sense. Globalization was on the rise and with many relatives and friends migrating to all corners of the world, there was a need for a mode of communication that didn’t involve days and months of waiting. Thus, as many human inventions go, social media satisfied another one of our base human needs; the desire and need for a sense of community. The number of connections made over social media was unimaginable for some, specially in the present context; a number we can’t even imagine reaching, if these platforms didn’t exist.
You may however, have passed over the significance of one word, “number”. While social media did, and continues to exponentially increase the number of connections we make, the level or quality of said connections needs to be questioned. Many readers of this blog are part of some form of social media platform and all of us undoubtedly have, at minimum, a three figure follower count, but how many of these people do we actually know? How many of them have we actually met in person? Better yet, how many of these people have we actually exchanged at least a couple of words with, in person or otherwise? True enough we may be able to boast a couple hundred followers on Instagram but can the same be said for friends? In that sense, social media may have connected us with the rest of the world, but are we all really connecting? Do we really satisfy that sense of community that social media initially set out to achieve or have we fallen prey to a new sense of pseudo community based on quantity as opposed to quality?
How many times have you pulled out your phone while being in the company of your friends and family? How many times have all of you all looked up from the screen, smiled for the Insta-story and then proceeded to glue your eyes back onto your phone screen? It’s a vicious cycle if you really think about it. We go out with friends with the intention of having a good time, end up spending much of that time engrossed with something on a screen, take a few pictures just to show the world that you’re ‘living the good life’ and then you leave, feeling satisfied for a while, only to be hit by a sudden feeling of loneliness, which is then satisfied by a hit of dopamine facilitated by another hour or so of screen time. Continuous scrolling makes us feel bitter and alone until we schedule another meetup and do the same thing all over again.
And the really strange thing here is, most of us know that social media has now, for the most part, become a platform for people to display the highlights of their lives. The online persona we see is more often than not, a veil behind which people hide and we still continue to compare ourselves, with those of others who seem to be “living the life”. Excluding the initial dopamine high we all get by scrolling through Instagram, how many of us can honestly say that we don’t feel even the slightest bit insecure or inadequate after an hour of stalking someone else’s feed? In that sense, dare I say, that in the long run, not only does this breed a feeling of inadequacy and unfulfillment, but also a feeling of slight resentment and envy, which may translate to our physical interactions with each other, if only we’d ever look up from the screen! As such, it acts to deter that initial desire for a sense of community that social media was supposed to cater to, thus, the sense of community in itself has transitioned into something that is measured by numbers as opposed to any real connection or feeling.
The modern reality is such that we now need to genuinely ask ourselves whether viewing and indeed, living life through a screen is what we really want. So far, it’s fairly clear that most, if not all, of us realize that social media tends to bring out an ugly side in us, and if most of us have grasped this reality, then why do we continue in the same way instead of changing it? Social media clearly has its many benefits, and so waking up one morning and deciding to erase it from our lives completely is not practically possible or realistic. However, the realization of what social media does to our relationships which we nurtured long before our introduction to the internet – the relationships that actually do give us a sense of community, ought to be sufficiently motivating to make us put more effort into our offscreen connections. If we really want to get back that sense of genuine connection, then I think the time has come for all of us to quit stalking, and start talking.
– Rtr Tharini Ratwatte
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