If there’s something to be said about going on a vacation – whether that means renting a car and driving two hours away from your town, or buying a plane ticket and flying six hours away from your country – it’s that it provides something crucial: distance. Physical (and, one should hope, subsequently mental) distance.
When I go away I take that idea of “distance” seriously. I don’t check Facebook, I don’t check Twitter. I don’t even check voicemail (unless it looks important). My only transgression is occasionally checking newspaper headlines to make sure that the world isn’t on the brink of collapse (which it often seems to be).
Upon returning, I find myself staring at my computer (or, more often, my BlackBerry) and wondering: what’s the point? Sure, I’ll go back to checking email, scheduling things, occasionally making sure the world isn’t on the brink of collapse, but re-entering the world of social media is another question. A daunting one, to be honest. I respect social media, yet, against its purpose, I often find it paradoxically alienating.
It started with Facebook, which began as a unique way to stay in touch with friends without relying upon email – a communal sandbox with multimedia extensions. With time (and popularity) came the inevitable mediocrity of a lot of people (along with the watering-down of “friend”-ship) without a lot of ideas posting a lot of crap that I found myself more often than not skipping. Lately, when I check Facebook what I’m really doing is ignoring 90% of what’s being posted in the hope that the two or three people who use Facebook to inform (or to provide entertaining commentary at the very least) have posted something. I’ve blocked and hidden so many applications and games and (depressingly) people’s predictably vapid status updates that some days I wonder whether I should just decamp and keep my account available for party invites, or if a long-ago friend wants to get in touch. I will honestly state that if there’s one thing Facebook has become indispensable for, it’s organizing group events – to this extent Facebook has unseated email, which is quite an undertaking (and also says something about its ubiquity).
Twitter began, for me, as something of a relief from Facebook. How could you not appreciate the brevity of 140 characters-per-posting? On Twitter things are short and sweet and fast. You could also follow people without the misnomer of “friend”-ship. Better still, if someone followed you there was no automatic obligation to follow them. For the longest time, I truly believed Twitter to be the ultimate social media experience (albeit without Facebook’s ability to organize group events). But the shine began to tarnish by virtue of Twitter eventually becoming an echo chamber: you and your friends follow similar people, and the linkages widen while staying proportionately intertwined. In other words, what seems like earth-spanning wit or some sort of axiomatic genius ends up, when you step back, being a sort of chain letter which entertains a core few, making no real impact. Twitter is constantly huffing and puffing with opinion, and like chimney smoke, no matter how clever or insightful, those opinions quickly dissipate, to be replaced by others. And then others. Nothing sticks. There is no real sense of depth. And even the bright people who at first you felt grateful to be plugged into begin to grate on your nerves with their constant complaining about their work, or, apropos of nothing, descriptions of the smoothie they concocted for breakfast that morning. Worse still, you find you have become one of them.
In social media there is the veneer of sociability; it is implicit, in name and most certainly in packaging. And yet, rather than building friendships – a collaborative affair – or expanding our sense of ourselves in a social milieu – an important impulse that most of us have, whether we will admit it or not – social media instead becomes self-advertising. I am doing this. I am thinking this. This is something I approve of. It may implicitly offer itself as a way to connect with others, but by and large the connection in practical terms is one-way. If it sounds as if I am despairing of social media, I am only referring to what it promises, as opposed to what it is. It is what it is, and I can’t argue with that, but what I can argue with is the capability of Facebook or Twitter to increase our ability to make friends or to strengthen our interpersonal skills. The harder one tries to find authenticity in the promise of social media, the more clearly its syntheticism is laid bare. Syntheticism isn’t bad, it’s just synthetic – the veneer of something deeper. Being mindful of this rather than expecting better and constantly being frustrated (as many are) is to commit oneself to the reality of social media forearmed.
I suppose I write this because, when I come back from vacation, from distance, I become aware of the vast amounts of time I spend checking and re-checking social media feeds throughout the day. For what? Connectedness? Perhaps, but if I’m being truthful with myself it’s rare that happens. At its best, I am attracted by the activity of social media, the trading of perspectives, sometimes even ideas. And yet, just as importantly, I think it’s good to step away. If I’m going to miss social media (no guarantees), let me miss it for what it is, not what we are led to believe it should be but isn’t.