Social media sucks. It’s been around for over a decade now, and in that period of time, it seems that social scientists, media pundits and amateur bloggers worldwide seem to have come to one definitive conclusion: social media actually just really sucks. It’s reduced the quality of public discussion and communication by promoting intellectual apathy and substituting traditional rhetoric with memetic filler. It’s permitted the amassing and uprising of societal dregs, ranging from the delusionally entitled and chronically self-pleasuring ‘gamer’ culture, to the masochistic and often borderline-illegal perversions of Internet fandoms, to the deranged political tumours of both the extreme left and right – the latter most having directly spilled out into the ‘real world’ in the most recent election, on both sides. And most hilarious of all, contrary to what it purportedly claims to do (which is, tentatively, to expand one’s social networking capacities and create a global village of sorts in turn), social media has instead utterly backfired in its very intended purpose and resulted in a lonelier, more depressed, more anomic, and – ironically enough – more socially useless world.
Or so it goes.
The other day, a friend complained to me that she feels she doesn’t have any real friends anymore. They’re all always Snapchatting or tweeting or texting each other and she feels she can’t get their attention anymore; she feels left out of an important social context, and more importantly, no longer feels welcome. When I ask her why she doesn’t just interrupt them, she tells me feels uncomfortable disturbing them, “because they’re busy doing other things”. A moment later, her phone vibrates and she takes it out and grins quietly to herself at a Snapchat. I ask her why she interrupted our conversation, which she initiated, to do something which she was complaining about.
She blushes and admits to me that she’s not been telling me the truth. “You know,” she says, “all this time I’ve been telling you it’s my friends who don’t want to be bothered. But really, it’s me. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. And I kinda feel like I should feel bad about it, but actually, I don’t. I’d really just rather do things on my phone.”
Well, there you go.
As much as we all like to lament the miseries of Facebook in our articles and our cubicle sermons and, ironically, our Facebook feeds, so few of us actually mean it. We hear a lot of nice hypotheticals asking us to imagine the world without social media, but how can we imagine a world without social media when most of us can’t even be trusted to imagine (or remember) a world without Netflix? And suppose I could – what do you expect me to do? Delete my accounts? Throw my phone and my laptop out the window of a moving vehicle? Hell, I might as well set fire to all my possessions and start farming hydroponic weed in a commune in the middle of Oregon while I’m at it.
Nah, the problem isn’t social media. It’s just us.
The truth is, we suffer because we are utterly useless. Sure, modernity has particularly amplified this uselessness of ours, has revealed it to be a common denominator of the human animal rather than just the long-suffering bitterness of some Romantic self-pariah; but we have always been aware, whether consciously or unconsciously, of this universal uselessness. From this uselessness, religions were born; as were myths, as were nations, as were your weekend basement get-together marathons of Gossip Girl. Man possesses no autotelic subjectivity of his own. He does not exist without the desire (or lack thereof) of others. It’s this interaction alone that validates our otherwise-pitiful existences here on this pale blue dot. The truth is, I am useless without you; but rest assured, you are useless without me.
Social media succeeds because it appeals to us where we are most vulnerable. In just 140 characters, you can temporarily find a painless, easy, and free quick fix. It offers three perfect solutions to our vulnerability.
The first is that we can speak whenever and whatever we want.
The second is that our voices will be heard.
The third is that someone out there has heard, listened – and cared.
Social media fosters the illusion of connection without the unpredictable volatility of intimacy. It permits us connection we can control. Many have argued against the tenability and validity of this connection, and while indeed these claims may have some weight to them, one must ask the question: is it not better to have the semblance of a connection than the risk of none at all? Why forsake a momentary comfort for the promise of some intangible ‘real’ connection that may or may not even be there?
Sure, social media is trying to redefine human connection. It’s a fantasy of substitution. It’s a hysteria of the “Am I desirable?”. It’s a marketplace where you can negotiate the lives of others as crutches and spare parts to support your own fragile anxiety. It’s an escapist illusion and an existential Tylenol and a masturbatory aid and a social shortcut and a philosophical tap-out, but goddamn, does it feel good. And in the end, isn’t that what we want?