Earlier this year one of my college roommates remarked to me about a curious but all too familiar phenomena he had encountered while traveling to and from class. In between periods the hallways would flood with students traveling from one place to another. What my roommate noticed, however, was how, as each student exited their classroom, their eyes immediately went downward to their smartphones and social media, shuffling along and practically ignoring most of their classmates. With this in mind, at the beginning of my next class I refrained from investigating the inner workings of my iPhone and social ego, and instead looked around my classroom. Not surprisingly, I found the same thing true in the classroom as it was in the halls: students face down in their phones, shut off from the rest of the world. At this moment, a thought occurred to me, and it has been one that has occupied my mind ever since.
How many of these strangers might I be friends with if social media did not exist?
I have recently begun to notice that social media tends to help foster and deepen relationships already established, but often proves a stumbling block to new and burgeoning friendships. Think with me for a moment, and see if your experience on Facebook or Twitter has proved similar. I’ll pick on Facebook since it is the social media outlet most broadly shared among demographics.
Facebook is a remarkable tool for staying in contact with people you already have established relationships with. Friends far removed distance-wise can stay somewhat up to date on your general doings, your work, special events and thoughts on cultural issues. Pictures are shared, private messages can be sent and comments are made amongst close friends who are continuously in contact with each other, even those not separated by physical distance. To truly close friends your Facebook interactions are simply a part of your broader relationship, a relationship that most likely includes spending time together, common activities, text messages and phone calls along with social media. Topics discussed on Facebook become natural and seamless parts of actual conversation. To the intimate friends Facebook can certainly be a tool (when used properly) in helping to continue and flourish the relationship.
But think of the acquaintances, the people you know on a very shallow and surface level and are connected with on Facebook; those people who you may work with, go to school with, go to church with whom you interact with only occasionally. How do you interact with them on Facebook? When you’re honest with yourself, you probably have to admit to what has jokingly been termed as “stalking”, poking around on these acquaintance’s pages, looking at pictures, likes, interests and posts, checking up on their doings occasionally out of simple curiosity’s sake. Nothing wrong with that, it is a human thing to do. But you wouldn’t actually comment on the page you are stalking, right? To interact with that person on Facebook would be socially odd and awkward, since you don’t have a relationship with them in real life. So, you might think to yourself while stalking, why not approach them about things you’ve learned about them through Facebook the next time you see them? You wouldn’t dare! Why not? Such an approach about meaningful Facebook material might appear “creepy” coming from someone with whom there is not an actual relationship.
Are you seeing the bind here? If you try to use Facebook either way to foster a friendship it seems odd because of the social stigma attached to it. Don’t believe me? When’s the last time someone asked you about your favorite Facebook quotations section? Or started a conversation with “So I was looking through your old Facebook photos…” Now perhaps you have had someone start a conversation like that, but if you’re honest with yourself, did you do an internal double-take, or perhaps question their motives? (If said person was of the opposite gender, it was most likely taken as a sign of interest) Thus we have the sad situation where people are poking around social media, learning all sorts of information about their acquaintances, but rarely ever forging an actual relationship with the person. We sit at our desks finding out about the exes of the student next to us through their profile pictures, but we would never dare actually turn to that same student and ask them about their emotional state.
There would seem to be two ways to remedy this killing of the casual friendship. First, we could try to break down the social stigma and cultural barriers that social media has erected between us by actually engaging each other about information we have discovered through social media. This is difficult, and takes a great deal of prudence. Quizzing anyone, even someone open to talking about their social media doings with a relative stranger, about pictures dating back several years is just asking to be labeled “creep.” However, why not use “what I saw on Facebook” as a conversation starter from time to time with those you might only be passingly acquainted with, instead of letting information just sit in the digital and mental realms?
Secondly, and more importantly, I believe, we can attempt to redirect the time and effort spent investigating those acquaintances digitally towards getting to know them in reality. Why not try to start a conversation with the student or worker next to you? We’re all humans here, and we all crave attention. Wouldn’t we enjoy it if someone reached out to us in a place we were unfamiliar with, if someone affirmed our existence enough to help us emerge from the digital ocean and take a refreshing breath of reality? Of course, this must be done within proper bounds and with tact, but the worst that can happen is a conversation that fizzles out. Who knows what might happen when we dare to reach out to the distant stranger who sits so close? Maybe in this way we can save the casual friendship from certain death.