Isolated amid our vast social networks

I wonder, how did people waste time before social networks became the norm?

How did we share the bizarre and/or silly things we encountered daily? What games did we play before there was such a thing as Draw Something or Words With Friends?

With a deft flick of the wrist I can tell you what I’m doing, where I’m at, or what I’m thinking. Thanks to the availability and versatility of smartphones and social networking websites, there’s no end to my self-aggrandizement.

Oh, are you watching the ballgame too? Well, get ready to read my commentary in real-time.

Whether a nationally-televised sporting event or some other form of cultural touchstone, I can trot out a pithy quip or snarky riposte to a built-in audience of friends, family members, and peers.

Between Twitter, Facebook, and my own personal website, I estimate there’s a few hundred people who have to put up with my snark on a fairly consistent basis.

Some of you are among this multitude, I know this because I have to put up with your own varied musings.

I’m kidding of course… if I wasn’t interested in what you have to say, I probably wouldn’t have bothered connecting with you via a social network. You would just be another among of the faceless masses who send me creepy anonymous emails.

No, I’m joking again. There’s no such thing as anonymity anymore. Even if you try to send me something anonymously there are countless tools and utilities I can use to parse out your identity. Hmm…  ayone else just a little unnerved by this? Oh, but I digress. Self-presentation on social media is unceasing, and possesses a postured nonchalance that eliminates even the potential for spontaneity.

Go to a school play or holiday program. Out in the audience are 100 parents with smartphones held high, each recording their child and swiftly posted online. Go to a party and see eager photos of conspicuous consumption. “Hey, look how good of a time we’re having!”

The appeal of social media for many, I think, is how it allows one to be both seeming intimate, and yet utterly removed as well. It allows us to isolate ourselves, mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity. We can keep the entire world at an arm’s length, filtering how we appear and interact with others without the difficulties that come from being vulnerable.

I’ve seen people post things about and to others that they would never dare say to their faces.

A few months ago I was told that a man had threatened me on a local message board because of an article I’d written. Claiming that I’d misinterpreted the events and put the most negative possible spin on what had “actually” occurred.

Now, I take my work very seriously. I am passionate about representing the truth with utmost accuracy and without overt bias and/or editorializing. So I called the man over the phone, hoping to rectify my apparent error and better represent the truth of the matter.

The man spoke to me like a beloved nephew. Apologizing for blowing up about the matter, explaining that he was more frustrated with the situation than about anything I’d written. Conceding that my story was written without sensationalism or embellishment, he meekly argued that he just wished my newspaper had not publicized the incident. I sympathized with him. We parted amicably and without rancor.

What’s up with that?

Recently I read an article that pondered whether all this technology, which is meant to unite us, is in fact doing the opposite. That, as a result of being tethered to an artificial simulation of social contact, we are actually growing increasingly disconnected from each other.

Perhaps, but I think that potential exists with any technology. No doubt we are just witnessing the next step in the technology of communication. The Internet is little better than the television, the radio, or the printing press as being another link in the chain.

The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Social media never takes a break but more importantly we never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning, before we even pour a cup of coffee.

Is there an inherent risk of turning such technology toward narcissism and self-absorption? Of course there is. It can make us more distracted and less reflective. I’ve had friends tell me that they sometimes have to “decompress” for a while, and just avoid checking certain sites. Another friend gave them all up for Lent and still hasn’t come back.

What this rampant social media has revealed about human nature (and this is no minor revelation) is that a “connection” is not the same thing as a bond. That instant and total “connection” is not a replacement for intimacy. That being thusly connected is no assurance of a better world, or even a more liberated version of interpersonal relations.

Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are.

After I graduated from high school I zealously fled my hometown. Went all the way across the country. Grew my hair long and started wearing a goatee. Indulged in any number of reckless and absurd behaviors. But nobody “back home” was the wiser. I was allowed my solitude and anonymity in order to make the necessary changes in becoming the person I wanted to be.

There was no strutting before a thousand watching eyes when I was intoxicated, or strung out on any number of illegal substances. No one knew of my drunken debaucheries or run-ins with local law enforcement. Few know of them to this day.

For all the gains of “keeping in touch” with my untold familiars across the great divides of time and space, there is something to be said for a little mystery. Perhaps we grew apart for a reason. No doubt we “went our separate ways” on purpose. Not all nostalgia is beneficial.

One of my main concerns becoming too enmeshed in this alternate reality is that it can become difficult to enjoy such simple and fundamental pleasure as relaxing with a good book or just going for a leisurely stroll outside. Spending quiet time in reflection or prayer can seem interminable when compared to the instant payoff of clicking through Wikipedia for an hour.

Worse than this, I feel, comes in exchanging the truth for an elegant fiction, enamored by a fabrication that lacks any soul or substance.

There’s a casual friend of mine who tells me how hard it is for her to talk with me in public, that she has become so accustomed to simply “responding” to the stimulus of a link or photo I’ve posted that it’s hard to relate when I bump into her around town.

Moments like this make me want to move out to a cabin in the middle of the vast Rusk County woodlands and take myself off the grid. I want to cry. I want to rage. I want to “de-friend” her and force her to talk to me in person if she wants to remain friends. I understand, but still…  I live for the real moments. The awkward pauses, the halting conversational “ums” and “uhs” that make their way into every conversation like so many dandelion weeds.

I adore being able to peek in on what my loved ones are up to at almost any moment of a given day, and I’m glad to share my own random moments with them as well. People are so hilarious, so disturbing, so endearing, and so frustrating to me.

But if you know and love me, and only interact with my social media presence, we’re both doing something seriously wrong.