The Social Media Disconnect

If you have an amazing experience but you don’t post about it on social media, did it even really happen?

Remember this?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it even make a sound?

This familiar thought experiment asks whether reality exists, or if it’s only defined by our perception. Recently, social media has created a ‘digital extension of the senses’. The ubiquitous smartphone enables us to capture the sights and sounds of our lives and upload them for the world to see — in seconds. But social media is infusing itself so strongly into our perception of the world that talking face-to-face could soon become a mere novelty that fills in the gaps between our daily digital dispersal.

For a fascinating case study on the effects of social media, we look to New York, where ‘a popular restaurant’ recently described their frustration. They compared their 2004 security camera footage to 2014 and found patrons now spend so much time on their smartphones that the average time to order, eat and pay has almost doubled — from 1 hour, 5 minutes to 1 hour, 55 minutes. They blame customers’ digital distractions including ‘texting while walking’, ‘problem[s] connecting to the Wi-Fi’, ‘taking photos of the food’, or otherwise ‘doing something on their phone’. And our obsession to record and share every moment isn’t restricted to eating out socially — it’s beginning to permeate every modern social experience.

Mobile Lovers by Banksy captures the ‘social media disconnect’. Photo: Duncan Hull via Flickr (CC licence, contrast adjusted, cropped)

If you’ve been to a concert recently you would have witnessed a relatively new phenomenon. Where there once was a sea of hands, we now have a sea of glowing smartphones (and, god forbid, iPads) recording a shaky, inaudible video their owners will never watch again. Beyond the risk of receiving a swift jab of the elbow from fellow patrons, today’s social media junkies risk losing their ability to enjoy the moment and have a memorable experience. In fact, we are now beginning to question the effects that social media could be having on our biological memory systems.

Social media allows us the convenience of outsourcing our memory storage to the internet — we don’t need to form ‘real’ memories, because everything’s online, right? But this practice of digital deference could have serious neurological consequences. Constant screen time with our deluge of digital devices forces us to engage in a form of ‘hyper-multitasking’ which verges on attention deficit disorder.

I don’t go out to actually have a good time. I just want it to look like I had a good time on Facebook.

On popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the deepest level of engagement we can dredge up is, at best, a brief reactionary comment to someone else’s post. At worst, we spend less than a second to ‘like’, ‘favourite’ or ‘re-share’ the content — before it scrolls off our screens into the abyss of irrelevance.

These byte-sized interactions see information constantly cycling through our short-term ‘working memory’, but they don’t give our brains a chance to consolidate our experiences into our long-term memory. Nicholas Carr discusses this idea in more detail in Chapter Nine of his book ‘The Shallows’:

What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency … the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation. [p.191]

Social media’s shallow engagement model is already turning us into mindless consumers of content for the sake of feeling connected. But as we move more of our social interactions online, we risk losing the deep connections that can only occur through real human conversation. As seen in the New York restaurant, social media obsession doesn’t only waste time, but it reduces our satisfaction with the experience. What faces us in the near future is true social media saturation — we could soon be asking ourselves the tree-falling question, updated for the twenty-first century:

If you have an amazing experience but you don’t post about it on social media, did it even really happen?

But there’s an even darker side of social media where the Digital Dystopia truly manifests itself. We’re already downloading apps to automatically text our significant others. We’re breaking up via SMS then creating Instagram feeds of texts from our ex’s for the purposes of amusement. But wait, it gets even darker.

Have you ever been sacked for Instagramming a wild night out then calling in sick the next day? Ever had to delete a friend who has died from social media because Facebook keeps suggesting you invite them to events? #Awkward. Have you found out about the suicide of your friend’s father by reading his live-tweets from the depths of emotional despair? Have you just muted his tweets from your timeline for a week because it was ‘all too depressing’?

Social media disconnects us from the real world while at the same time creating a new virtual reality where our expression and perception becomes distorted.

This bleak new reality is the Digital Dystopia. Social media disconnects us from the real world while at the same time creating a new virtual reality where our expression and perception becomes distorted. This ‘social media disconnect’ has already been documented by street artists like Banksy, above, and others painting satirical ‘smartphone-only lanes’ on sidewalks.

As we become desensitised by the digital divide, we risk turning into complete cyber-sociopaths, more concerned with curating our virtual image than maintaining real-world relationships. It seems we’d rather spend our lives taking selfies and posting statuses with a minutia of detail, then lying in wait for the likes and comments to start flowing.

Our digital addiction is out of balance. If we extrapolate current trends we can expect our future society to be polarised between two dystopian extremes:

  • virtual reality saturation — everyone, everywhere online all the time; and
  • social media fatigue — and the eventual digital exodus back to reality.

We’re at a crossroads: if we don’t disconnect, we could miss out on the reality right in front of us. But paradoxically, if all our friends are online, the real world becomes a very lonely and desolate social wasteland. One thing’s for certain — reality just doesn’t look as cool without a vintage filter.

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