I don’t know many people who don’t check their phone every few minutes. What I do know though is that people can get really sensitive about this – either high and mighty about other people’s overuse, or quietly terrified when they’re the only one not looking at their phone. There’s this panic of being tested on the ability to remain calm when you sense that everyone around you is spending their moment better than you are.
Or maybe that’s me overthinking.
The anxious and often pathological relationship we have with social media and our phones can be positive. I think it means we care a lot about being present in the thoughts and experiences of those people we care about. It isn’t angst, it isn’t obsession – it’s a desire to interact and to see beyond our own perspective.
But we’re always trading our own presence to be part of someone else’s.
As an exercise in imagination, visualize yourself reaching for your phone, holding it in your hand and waking up the screen. You see the clock, your background and – you hope – a message or a notification. This is just what you wanted, isn’t it? Someone looked at something of yours and reacted to it. And now you know.
But on the search for Likes, we’re losing objectivity.
When we see those gleaming notifications, we’d like to think we’re interacting, that we’re thinking about the people behind the addictive orbs that drew us down to our screens and made us neglect the rooms we’re in. The rooms we’re in have people too, and by looking for Likes from somewhere else, we tell the people around us: I don’t think you’re worth talking to. I can find better than you.
But can we? Likes are really just half-second efforts made by someone else who also neglected the room they were in.
We look at our phones like a child beholds a toy with an LCD display: this is who cares about me this much, it says. But it’s a machine, and we confuse its affection for that of a real person.
A Like can mean anything from “you must be having so much fun” or “this picture is beautiful” to “I affirm your decisions, treasure our friendship and am so glad I’ve retained your presence in my social media feeds all these years.”
A Like might also have nothing to do with you. A Like can be political. A Like can be ironic.
It could be all about them, their love of themselves and just a smug confirmation of their own decisions. Maybe they’re using you.
We don’t know. We don’t investigate the Likes we receive. We make them whatever we need them to be.
Is a 10 a.m. Like different from a 10 p.m. Like? Sure, when we’re the ones interpreting it. But to the other person, it’s not different. It was one thing at one moment. But we don’t ask – we just assume we understand their intent. We don’t speak, we just acknowledge.
We all have so much love to give, but we’re running so fast through so much stimulation that our intent ends up taking the easy way out: click Like, move on, assume they understand.
But good intentions are the cheapest things in the world. Do you know what really matters?
The Like as one-second acknowledgment of human attention is valuable, but the seconds have to add up. It takes a commitment of time to make relationships a transformative force in your life, not just a thing you talk about having. The friendships we want in our lives are ones for which presence would be enough. The other person isn’t elsewhere while also there with you. They aren’t hedging their bets, looking around to be sure they aren’t missing a better conversation. When a friendship has substance, the other person is enough.
How many times has 12 Likes been a disappointment, and instead of thinking positively about each of those 12 people, you were consumed with impatience and confusion as to why there aren’t more?
You are not your ability to get Likes.
You are not your public profile.
You are the dynamic, unexpected, not-yet-perfectly-formed force that people get to see when they make an effort themselves. They only get the real you when bring more to the table than a half-second Like.
The best parts of life happen in the space between two people. It’s up to us to make that space sacred ground.