In the modern era, hardly an hour goes by where we aren’t interacting with technology in some way. The widespread use of the Internet has ushered the world into an unprecedented era of information and communication. For many of us, devices such as smart phones and computers dominate how we interact with people and the world around us. With such a dramatic change in our lifestyles happening in such a short span of time, it is easy to overlook how all of this has impacted our lives. Although we cannot deny that technology has connected the world, we must still ruminate on how it has changed the nature of social interaction.
Woven into the fabric of the human soul is the need for connection. We yearn for interaction with others, with ourselves, and with a broader purpose. A conversation on a cozy couch by the fireplace, a reflective walk to gather our thoughts, or selling sweaters on Locust Walk to raise money for global health – these are the things which make us feel most alive, which connect us to our humanity.
Social media thrives on our thirst by offering an alluring, immediate fix. Facebook implicitly promises to satisfy our never-quite-satiable craving for human connection. And yet, despite our intellectual understanding that it rarely fully fulfills us, we turn to social media to fill our in-between moments, the waiting-for-an-elevator-and-need-a-spark-of-stimulation moments. It’s not our fault we are so busy; there are simply so many problem sets, papers, meetings, tests. Snapchat replaces fireplace conversation, Twitter posts replace reflection, and we engage by “Attending” (though who are we kidding, how many do we actually attend?) Facebook events because our extracurriculars have become a burden rather than a joy.
But there is another way. And it all starts with a change in perspective.
Social media, and technology as a whole, are means, not ends. Blurring the fine line between social media and genuine social activity and communication can lead us astray down a path to further loneliness and disconnection. By being thoughtful and purposeful about our goals for technology we can ensure that it serves us, rather than allow it to insidiously become our master. While it is easier said than done, we have the capacity to log on only when we have specific reason to do so, rather than whenever we need to fill the nooks and crannies of our days. We are empowered to use social media to communicate, to advertise, to create and learn about ideas and events. To engage, to connect. This harnessing takes on different forms depending on the unique circumstances of the person. Some have formal disconnect times, such as the Jewish Shabbat or TableTalk. These times, these spaces, open people up to deeper connections with the self and with others. Many people are fine simply being conscious of their goals while using social media, yet others install timers to limit their usage, and some even choose to not use social media at all. Whatever our choices, the key to our empowerment is the intentionality behind them.
In our fast-paced, modern lives, it seems as if we have a need to always be doing something – and technology only adds to this. Social media has allowed us to be “connected” to hundreds, even thousands of people we know. Every time we open up Facebook or check Twitter, we’re stormed with updates about every new development in our friends’ lives. It’s become the norm to always be busy, to always have something you’re supposed to be doing. And when we’re not doing something specific, our gut instinct is to log onto social media and see what everyone else is doing. It’s become our default state – if we arrive a few minutes early to a meeting or are waiting for the elevator, our first instinct is to pull out our smartphones and mindlessly scroll through our newsfeeds. But sometimes it’s okay to take a breather away from the connected digital world and just spend some time with yourself. I often take time to just sit outside and observe the world, quietly reflecting on the day. I find it to be peaceful and calming. However, one alarming thing I’ve noticed is that when friends walk past me doing this, I’ve found them coming up to me with a concerned expression on their face to ask if I’m doing okay. Not having something to do is seen as strange or concerning.
Perhaps a cause of this issue is due to us trying to reconcile our hectic, jam-packed online lives with our offline lives. Social media is an amazing tool and incredibly useful, but we have to remember that it’s not representative of what real communication is like. Reading your newsfeed is very different from interacting with those friends in real life. While social media may have been originally geared towards recreating the offline social experience in a digital world, it has in fact become something uniquely different. It’s not a replacement for our offline social lives, but rather a supplement. People with the most friends or followers can still be lonely and people without social media accounts can still lead very social lives. We’ve built up a FoMO (“Fear of Missing Out”) mentality when it comes to social media, but it’s critical to realize that the online world can be deceptive. People only put their best selves out there for the world to see and we must always keep this in mind. It’s important to not get drawn to the allure of the online social media world and to use them as means, not ends. Now I’m not saying to stop using these online services – it’s very necessary in the modern world, but rather think deeply about the purpose of everything you do and what you ultimately want to get out of it.
At first blush this is counterintuitive; if we do not want social media to be a big part of our lives, we should not think about it so much. After all, the more thought we give it, the more of an active presence it is in our minds. However, it is already occupying our mindspace, and not necessarily in a productive way. By not actively thinking about the role of social media in our lives we allow it to seep into the recesses of our mind. While habit reformation does at first take time, effort and proactivity, we can eventually get to a place where controlling the technology and social media in our lives is second nature and less effortful.
And then, just maybe, we will give ourselves the chance and the validity to further deepen our connection with ourselves, and with everyone and everything around us.
Developed by Ben Bolnick (College Class of 2016) and Prakhar Bhandari (Engineering Class of 2017)