There’s something ironic about the fact that I have such conflicted opinions of social media and electronic communication when it is by and large the way I most often communicate. It always makes me think of the Wally Lamb novel She’s Come Undone. If you haven’t read the book, let me first recommend it (or anything Wally Lamb has written, really) before saying that I won’t ruin it for you by giving too many details. Suffice it to say that in the novel, the main character’s life goes into a tailspin after she receives her first television and her life completely changes (and not really for the better).
I was in 8th grade, awkward, shy, socially backwards, and probably with ugly shoes, when my family got its first computer and AOL account. Going into chat rooms changed the way I communicated with people. With the safety of being behind a screen, it was more difficult for people to hurt me, and I had a much easier time letting my true personality show – my sense of humor and my compassionate side, particularly. (However, for those who think Internet bullying is a relatively new concept, I can attest to the fact that it existed in the mid-to-late 90s. Some of the same people who said mean things to me at school found me online and said mean things there, too. Kids are sharks.)
It wasn’t long before I went from chatting with friends and total strangers to talking to people I didn’t know well at my school. This was a cop-out in some ways and good in others. I would never have talked to these people at school, nor would they have likely talked to me, without the buffer of a chat window. However, when it was time to meet face-to-face with classmates (I never met strangers for obvious reasons), I knew that they would think it odd if I didn’t act in accordance with who they knew me to be: my “online personality” – the person I actually was, as opposed to the person who couldn’t figure out how to be herself around others. This forced me to come out of my shell, and by the time high school was over, I was still shy, awkward, and socially backwards (still am, really), but not nearly to the degree I had been (and I have a far cooler shoe collection).
Throughout high school and into college, talking to new friends online helped me to cultivate relationships that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have if I had to rely just on my social skills (I still get really nervous around people I don’t know very well). I looked at online communication as another form of writing, I suppose, and I’ve always had an easier time writing than speaking. Though it’s nice to hear my friends’ voices sometimes to remind me that they’re real people, I’m not big on talking on the phone (I outgrew that in early high school when it became easier to talk to my friends all at once online).
And then along came Facebook and MySpace, Twitter, blogs, and countless other ways to always know what my friends are doing without ever having to ask them. Don’t get me wrong – like many people, Facebook is an integral part of my daily life – but with so many ways to communicate and so many people available all the time, it can be overwhelming. Not only that, but it’s hard to know who your real friends are when no one is talking to you because, well, they don’t need to. Suddenly everyone appears to have more friends than they really have, and how am I supposed to know my place amongst all of them? I’ll admit to being frustrated when I feel like I haven’t talked to my friends in a while, but I’ll also admit to being a person who updates Facebook frequently, so I remind myself that if I say everything, what reason do they have to talk to me? Really, though, there’s a lot more going on in almost everyone’s lives than they put online (though I’m sure we all know the people who update twelve times a day with absolutely inane information, and not even sarcastically).
Still, I have, for a long time, felt that reading a close friend’s blog (or Facebook or Twitter, etc.) is not a substitute for actually talking to that friend. We all have Facebook friends who are casual acquaintances. We’re interested in their status updates or what they have to say elsewhere, but we don’t feel the need to talk to them. In my mind, that’s normal and acceptable. I don’t think it’s normal to not talk to your closest friends and just depend on the Internet to tell you everything, nor is it acceptable to let your friends find out major life events via Facebook. That’s how the Internet taketh away your friends.
For as much as I love how easy social media has made it for me to stay in touch with the people I consider to be my best and closest friends, as well as with others whose company I enjoy when we have reason to talk, I also hate it. I hate how it gives me enough information – information I neither need nor really want – to get upset about stupid things that wouldn’t otherwise bother me. Ignorance is bliss. I hate how it sparks a certain paranoia in me when I see girls from my high school making fun of people together on someone’s wall and I get the feeling they’re referring to something I said. I hate commenting on something someone has said only to get a response that makes me feel as though I wasn’t really welcome to comment, as though the post was intended for someone specific and I wasn’t it. I hate when my comments are criticized as being too personal. When I’m talking to my friends, I didn’t know I should act as though we’re not close. That seems counterintuitive. For as far as social media has taken me, it has the same ability to take me right back to a jittery, hyper-aware teenager (and in my efforts to always stay one step ahead of someone who is about to wrong me, I’ve always been a little paranoid). There are times when I feel like I just need Facebook Detox, when I need to stop thinking about things I see there so much, when I need to not know or care who is around and what they’re doing.
I know I’ve said this before in a previous post, but I don’t want to feel taken for granted. I don’t want my friends to think that they don’t really need to talk to me because they can see what I’m up to. Facebook is a wasteland for passive-aggressive behavior (again, guilty), but there’s more to what’s going on in my life and mind than that. Somehow, though, that’s often exactly how I end up feeling. That’s when I know it’s time to take a step back and figure out who’s really still on my team.
That’s the funny thing about communicating online: for as much confidence as it might give me, it’s equally able to take it all away.