I was reading another article on Medium called “Why Is Everyone So Lonely These Days?” and instead of responding in line, I decided to make my own article on the subject.
If you’re over the age of 40 and have been around the technology block, the answer to many of our current social issues revolve around what may be the greatest evil of our day.
Social Media is arguably the greatest villain in our quest for relationships.
This doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand why — if you’re willing to do a bit of analysis of the past.
Friendship Via Big
Recently, my son and I attended a theatrical re-release of the Tom Hanks movie, Big which is now 30 years old this year. My son is 11 years old which is a bit younger than the on-screen Hanks age of 13 but I felt there would still be a good connection for him.
For me, having seen Big so many times I could recite most of it by heart it was an opportunity for me to look at it as a period piece.
For those that have not had the benefit of seeing the film, the story revolves around a young boy named Josh who is tired of his age and size getting the way of the happiness in his life. Through a cosmic-slightly-supernatural encounter with a carnival “make-a-wish” machine, he wishes to be big — and his wish is granted.
Body-changing movies were the rage at the time, but Big was something different. It wasn’t about the oddity of being swapped, but the dynamics of the people that are affected by this granted wish.
Aside from the obvious business woman Josh ends up sleeping with — another relationship is nearly destroyed; that of Josh and his very best friend Billy. At first, Hanks’ 30 year old persona is useful in unlocking experiences for the pair (beer and dirty magazines) but the wedge quickly formed and while Billy was trying to find a way to get his best friend back into his kid body, Josh was dealing with life as a grown up.
We can learn a lot from Josh and Billy.
During the first reel, as we’re getting established into the characters we get a glimpse into the life of tween best-friendism. From the trading of baseball cards to the intricacies of budding love for an older girl — the two share with each other almost everything. At night, they sneak walkie-talkies into bed (don’t worry, they live next door — the walkie-talkies would have worked) so they can chat with each other and gossip about whether Cynthia likes Josh or not.
They spend time together — playing stick ball after school. They even have a complicated “secret” song that helps “big Josh” convince Billy it is really him.
Billy is the better friend. He steals clothes and money for Josh to hide out in New York with. He comes to seem him in the City every day. Together they find Josh a job. When Josh is busy planning a toy line, Billy is ever searching for the creepy Zoltar machine so Josh can wish himself a kid again.
Josh ends up abandoning Billy in pursuit of Elizabeth Perkins boobs. It is hard to fault him for that.
Billy, though, sees the friendship through to the end. He finds Zoltar and Josh makes the right decision and returns to his adolescent body and his family back in Jersey.
My son is 11. He has no friends like this.
If you’re in your early 20s right now, do you remember having a friend like this? Probably not.
I’m pushing 50. I had many friends like this.
Contrasting 1988 to 2018
So let’s take a look at Billy and Josh circa 2018.
They probably don’t live next door — maybe don’t even go to the same school. On the weekends, they play Fortnite online (without chat if they have good parents). During the week they share some pics on Instagram — probably talk about girls occasionally over Snapchat. If they happen to go to the same school, they probably spend their lunch hours sitting at the same table — chatting over Messenger.
Their conversations are measured and uni-directional; compliments of text messaging or other online text chat services. Fire and forget discussions.
There is communication galore — but where is the real friendship here?
As humans, we connect to people through the sharing of emotion and experience — not just in the “perfect pic for my Insta” times but in times that are less fortuitous.
Times that we are vulnerable.
Experiences that shape our life are complicated; not just the background of a selfie on Facebook. Experiences that are shared become the building blocks of solid relationships.
Hitting SHARE or LIKE doesn’t build the blocks of solid relationships.
Josh and Billy in 1988 never had one-way fire and forget conversations. Even with their most indirect communications (walkie-talkies) there was always two-way communication.
Consider how little REAL two-way communication social media offers and you might get a clue as to why Josh and Billy circa 2018 aren’t the sort of buddies their 1988 counterparts were.
If there was ever a more appropriate oxymoron phrase, it would have to be “digital empathy”.
Thanks to Facebook, people in need have a really big audience to pitch to. Lost your job? Lost a child? Tornado hit the trailer? Get your digital empathy on Facebook.
Of your 1,323 “friends” on Facebook — how many have posted about tragedy in their lives? Something life changing? I guarantee you’ve seen at least one.
How easy was it for you to ignore this? Sure sure, you typed a brief response. Maybe shared some tragic photos with friends.
Clicking the scrollbar made that story go away. Your wall filled with cat pictures and puppy memes quickly erased that life-altering tragedy (which meant everything to someone else — and in the end, nothing to you).
Right right, I know. Those aren’t your ‘real friends’. You can hide behind the facade of “friends in name only”, but the people you actually consider friends (and family) are right there, too — and they are just as easy to scroll down off of and are just one click away from some idiot kid recording himself vandalizing a car.
What experiences do we share with our “really real friends”?
In the pre-1980s, we communicated largely in person or with telephones in real time. The internet didn’t exist. If you wanted to communicate, speaking or writing letters were your only options. We did have BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) that were like digital cork boards where you could leave someone a message and come back later to get a reply — but this was considered very casual conversation between acquaintances at best. Anonymity wasn’t really an issue either; even with BBSes.
In the 1990s, technology provided us with “online chat” — and this was largely real time chat in the form of chat rooms (or IRC; inter relay chat for the initiated). While easy to compare this to ‘early texting’, the decorum wasn’t the same. If you were in the “room” you were part of the conversation (usually); not “waiting for someone to respond”. This started the anonymous nonsense which abstracts people from others — which has now been perfected thanks to social media.
By the 2000s, we were rapidly learning how to ignore each other quite well. We had cellphones, SMS, Blackberry Messenger … all the tools to be absolutely sure we avoided as much real-time contact with other humans as possible. But tech was still new and people still got on the phone with each other and talked.
Come the 2010s and we have effectively ensured we speak to no one. All conversations are filtered through and by social media. We’ve pared down our pool of information to “affirmative news” — that which supports our own beliefs — and we’ve pared down those we “follow” into like-minded clones of ourselves.
We’ve also taken it upon ourselves to release ourselves from humanity under the guise of anonymity. Avatars or “handles” used to be a fun reflection of the human it represented. Now the human is pretty much gone; the only “verified” people are those that are famous (and oddly with accounts that are rarely penned by the “real” people they represent … no wonder we’re so screwed up).
Everyone else? Hides — they use the veil to release their worst qualities upon their fellow man; safe under the guise of social media. After all, if you poison your true identity — you have to live with that. Poison your Twitter account? Open a new one and move along.
Those that are still Real Humans and use their own identity typically portray Their Good Version(tm) on social media.
Hard to build real relationships with bots, fakers and anonymous trolls, yes?
Thanks to social media, you can be whomever you want to be and say whatever you want. No reprisal, no consequences.
Not only do we allow this behavior — we actually condone it. Our President even does it — but in his defense, he at least isn’t anonymous about it.
When you dehumanize communication and encourage unchecked, unfiltered discussion outside the boundary of human decency — how do you expect to build strong, long lasting relationships?
I’m not typically the kind of person that criticizes without offering a solution but in this case, we may be too far gone.
From a generational perspective, this is Condoned and Allowed(tm). Moving forward, those that remember what it was like to hang out in a treehouse with your buddies on a Saturday afternoon or gossip with your neighbor over the backyard fence are going to slowly but surely removed from the seats of power and influence.
As Gen X retires and moves on … as the Baby Boomers start to die off … this destruction of communication will really have no further barriers.
My only suggestion is to somehow restore humanity to communication.
Remove all anonymous internet communication — starting with social media. Everyone is “verified”. If you want to be a scorching misogynistic racist? Your name is on the tweet/post/wall/moment/blip and everyone knows who you are. The First Amendment may give you the right to free speech; but says nothing about getting to be anonymous when you do it.
Since we’re not going to be able to get rid of it, let’s restore some civility to social media and maybe we have a chance.
Meanwhile, try putting your phone down and talking to a human next time you’re out and about.
After all, if things continue the way they are now — face to face communication with another person may become a lost skill.