Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Social media: it feels like we know more, but do we actually know less?

It often feels like I know much more about other people since the advent of social media.  I know what some people have for dinner each night. I know what holidays they go on, and what sort of travel photographer they are. I know who gave who lives in Candy Crush Saga (AKA the void into which time is thrown, never to be seen again, ever). Some days, it feels like I'm drowning in the inane minutiae of other people's lives. On those days I tell myself I'm going to break up with Facebook. I think about all of the hours I've wasted reading about other people's children and cooking when I could have been doing something productive. That's it, I'll say. No more Facebook for me. I'll just read this one more post ... 

Other days I read about a new baby being born, or see pictures from a friend's wedding that I couldn't attend. On those days, I am glad for Facebook. On those days, Facebook goes from being a frenemy to my BFF. I can't quit Facebook, I think. It's how I find out about friends that I don't see all the time, and interact with them via likes and shares. And where else can I post adorable photos of my children, to then bask in the warm, smug glow that comes from having dozens of likes under a photo of my progeny?  

Then, yesterday, I found out via Facebook that a friend had died. We hadn't seen each other in a few years, as while we were from the same hometown we lived in different countries. If you'd asked me a week ago if I'd heard from him recently, I would have said yes. We'd swapped messages not too long ago, and 'liked' each others statuses. It hadn't been that long ago. Had it? Thing is, I found out he'd died after his profile picture on Facebook was changed to a picture of his gravestone, with a date of death from last year. And I'd had no idea. So, it turns out, the 'recent' Facebook interaction wasn't that recent at all. It was three days before he died, over seven months ago. 

I thought I knew too much about people due to Facebook, but now I realise that there is even more I don't know. It's as if social media creates an illusion of closeness due to how frequently you can read other people's news and see their photos. But, in most cases, that's all it is. An illusion. You can't know how happy someone is, or what's going on in their lives. You don't know if someone's just separated from their partner, or lost their job. You don't know if someone is very sick. Most people don't post stuff like that. In the 1990s, my friends and I who lived in different cities used to write long letters to each other and ring each other up. For much of the 2000s, we wrote emails. Now, I'm ashamed to say, we rely on Facebook far too much to keep in touch. Which is crazy, really. It's like keeping in touch via telegram rather than letter, when you aren't even certain that the person is going to receive the telegram in the first place.   

That brings me to another reason why we know less: social media is huge. Just because someone's posted something somewhere, doesn't mean other people are going to see it. People once arrived at my sister's flat for a party she didn't know about because she hadn't read about it on Facebook. No-one had told her, and the party was at her house. This is one example of many I can think of when someone didn't know about an event due to social media being used. And, to be honest, I'm guilty of relying too much on Facebook as much as the next person to share my news. Old fashioned phone-trees, letters, invitations and cards were much more onerous, but at least news got out there. At least a letter would be eventually returned if the address was wrong.  And if people aren't totally up to date on what's going on in your life, fine. They may not care anyway. It's just a mistake to assume that because you've put something online all of your friends are going to read it. 

I not going to break up with Facebook. A big part of that is because I'm scared of what I'll miss out on finding out if I do.  People just don't send personal messages anymore. Had I not been on Facebook, I wouldn't have found out about the births of four friends' babies in the past month, as none of them got in touch with me in any other way to let me know. I wouldn't have found out my friend had died, albeit seven months too late. But, I'm going to be better at sending proper, personal messages. Because, after all, without doing that, how can I find out what's really going on with my friends I don't see often? And, this week, I've learned the hard way how bad it can feel to know you've left that too late. 

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