Because I can at least remember how I processed thoughts when I was awash in idealism, I can imagine a young Mark Zuckerberg envisioning his Book Of Faces that would allow people to be connected from around the world. Even people living in podunk little towns, he would have said (in my imaginary prequel), can reach virtually across the globe to clasp hands with another dreamer from Katmandu, or a seeker from Sicily.
The Jew and the Arab would get to know each other as people through the sharing of hummus recipes. Catholics and Protestants would discover a shared humanity seeing photos of each others’ kids and grandkids. Whole generations of children would grow up “color blind” because digital proximity had made them neighbors with others of different races and ethnicities.
PROTIP: No one really has 1,207 “friends”.
I know, because that’s the official count of my personal Facebook account as of this writing — and that’s after pruning and trimming and deleting as friends those I know who have died, but live on in the Facebook alternate reality.
In reality, I have one husband, three children to whom I gave birth, and two children I got as a wedding present. I have six grandchildren. I see roughly twenty patients a day in our clinic, and there are somewhere just over 100 employees where I work, of whom I see about thirty on a regular daily basis — and that’s only because I am social and chatty and wander around to see people.
Of my high school class of 400+ students from forty years ago, I keep in touch regularly with probably ten, even though I rarely see them in person. I have cousins and in-laws that I rarely see, but like to keep up on the milestones in their lives. I have college classmates and former co-workers and colleagues from throughout my career — let’s estimate fifty of those, even if I may see them on an average of once a year.
There are neighbors that I wave to more frequently, and friends from running groups with whom I have shared races and weekends and injuries and highlights — I would guess twenty of those with whom I am still close, since I don’t run anymore. I remain friends with the people in the town where I raised my kids — and friends of those kids, now adults and raising children of their own.
Realistically speaking, that’s about all I can truly tell you I feel a connection with. The other 900 names show up on my friends list because I hate to be exclusionary, or hurt anyone’s feelings. Even if they wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to me in high school and their political views are abhorrent to me today, I can “unfollow them” so I don’t have to see the things they post, but I cringe at cutting them off as “friends”.
We’ve forgotten what friendship really means.
Friends have relationships, and relationships are, with few exceptions, best nurtured face to face, with precious time devoted to each other. Connections are built when we can hear the inflections in each other’s voices, and notice each other’s body language.
In substituting real friendships with sterile, digital approximations, we have also given away talking to each other on the phone in favor of texting each other. For heaven’s sake, “sexting” is even a word — and no one can tell me that anything meaningful related to sex can be accomplished with your thumbs on the screen of a smart phone.
In fact, we shy away from actual physical encounters with friends. We tell ourselves we are introverts when really, it’s just downright inconvenient sometimes to go hang out in real time with another human being, when we can sit on the couch with no pants on and text each other.
We’re becoming socially isolated instead of connected, Facebook.
We have whole passels of “incels” meeting in dimly lit chat rooms and nodding avatars at each other, whining about how women won’t have sex with them and therefore should be killed. We have virtual assemblages of conspiracy theorists who huddle behind blue screens and encourage each other in ideas that would be shot down in eight seconds in the light of day.
We have record numbers of people reporting depression, anxiety, and disillusionment with life. And for that, we have therapy by text. You don’t even have to put pants on to go talk to a counselor, where they can notice subtle differences in your appearance, your voice, your speech cadence. You can receive mental healthcare via text messages now.
Kid don’t go out and play, wandering like a pack of puppies from one friend’s house to another’s and finding each other by the telltale pile of bikes thrown down in someone’s front yard. They stay inside, behind their bedroom doors, and fall prey to monsters posing as other kids online, who promise them a sense of belonging and love.
Our strength is that we are relational creatures.
Since the dawn of time, we have gathered around each other’s fires and passed along each others stories, trading goods and pieces of our culture with those nearby but not of our tribes. We are made for a sense of belonging to a group, and so we slide into groups online, like the pasty faced nitwits who never realized their actual faces would be seen and photographed as they Heil Hitler’d themselves through the streets in Charlottesville or in Washington, D.C.
And I end up with people on my back stoop — virtually speaking — calling me a “libtard”, a “snowflake”, a “cuck” and a “feminazi”. I assure you, no one would say that to my face without backing up several steps immediately afterward. I can bring the crazy.
And that right there is what causes me the most pain. I have friends — people who are IRL friends — who disagree with me politically or over which Iowa sports team I elevate — who get downright nasty. OK, honestly, I’ve done it myself. The firewall of my computer screen allows us relative safety in acting like jerks without getting our blocks knocked off. But our feeling and our souls don’t know the difference between virtual name calling and schoolyard taunts hurled at mega decibels in our faces.
We need, more than ever, to rethink what “connection” means.
Our democracies are at stake, our families, and our communities. We need to think critically about the affects on our psyches and those of our kids, and our expectations for each other going forward. Technology is a fabulous thing that has propelled us forward by leaps and bounds, but I opine that it is our connection and collaboration with each other, in real life relationships, that have wrought the most amazing marvels in our history.