Social relationships, by their very nature, are transactional. They are richly imbued with nuance, color and tone. Relationships engaged in the various theaters of social media - even when those relationships exist in a coincident social milieu - lack these characteristics. This is due in part because social media introduces two parallel and paradoxical elements - false intimacy and social distance. These elements contribute to the fostering of relationships that, in their lack of authenticity, can sometimes be at best awkward -- and at other times at worst tragic -- in their consequences.
There is a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card called Ender's Game in which children are taught to be fighter pilots in an intergalactic war by playing a video game that simulates combat. The tragedy of the story is that Ender, the hero -- and victim -- of the tale, eventually puzzles out that it's not a game at all, and that he and his playmates are actually controlling drones pitted against an unseen and unknown enemy in full scale battle.
This is a perfect example of social distance as fostered by our experience of social media - it's on a screen, so it can't be real or, more properly, it (whatever "it" is) doesn't carry the same weight or social valence as it would were it occurring right in front of us. (Doctoral dissertation moment - what distribution of airmen flying drones over the Middle East from stations in Colorado suffer some level of PTSD, versus those troops who see face-to-face combat and why?)
We are, within these contexts, once removed and, as such, can - especially in our current environment of moral relativism - potentially step away from any immediate social responsibility. This sort of characterization can be seen at the core of the emotional infidelity that has become so salient as our electronic and media connections have become more and more dense, as well as the sort of cyber-bullying and social expose that has recently captured our attention.
By contrast, social media also offers a sense of false intimacy. Somehow it is important for you to know that your "friend" Ally, whom you haven't actually seen in 30 years, just went for a walk and somehow it is important that she tell you - and 234 other folks. But now you "know" about her day and that somehow fosters a sense of connection - for both of you. That connection, however, is considerably more tenuous - and less real -- than when your spouse asks you where you are so s/he can get a visual of you in the kitchen or at the grocery or headed for the gym, is it not?
It is that same false sense of connection that can prompt even those of us with the most rigid of boundaries to get pretty bendy with those boundaries within contexts like E-Harmony or Match.com. Fling.com, by the way, gets about 40% more traffic than Match - go figure...or not.
The real misfortune here is not that social distance has us saying or doing stupid things, or that false intimacy has us falling in love with a fantasy. The misfortune is that these elements, both independently and in combination, and indeed the entire fabric of what makes up the tapestry of media-informed social interaction, are apparently contributing to a fairly significant deficit and declination in social and emotional intelligence all the way around.
To whit, "I'm not having an affair, if I'm not having sex." or "I won't talk to my roommate about my discomfort with his or her sexual preferences; I'll simply broadcast it anonymously." or "I won't exercise the social decorum about my (frankly, rather nominally promiscuous) sexual escapades one would presume, I'll make a flier!" Does any of this strike anyone else as more than marginally absurd? And, more to the point, without the venue of a socially distant and falsely intimate media forum, would we even be making these choices?
These are some important questions and, yes, I'm being a bit more preachy than usual here, but there's a reason for it. My own doctoral thesis - penned long before the advent of the Internet or anything else - considered the influence of media on social perspective and its consequences. It is simply astonishing to me that something I dreamed up as an ivory tower reflection on socialization and social educational theory more than 25 years ago could become such a powerfully evident construct within our post-modern media society. More to the point, it saddens me that it would be the case at all.
© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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