When I made the decision to study abroad, I did so with the understanding that the experience would push me out of my comfort zone and force me to interact with new people. For once in my life, the thought of mingling with other students my age seemed thrilling instead of terrifying — which, for an introvert like me, was an accomplishment in itself. It wasn’t until I arrived on my new campus and encountered a mass of cheery twentysomethings that I remembered how difficult making friends truly was. The excitement of travelling had induced a lapse of judgment that had briefly deluded me into thinking making friends was as easy as saying hello.
My search for companionship reached an unexpected turning point around the second day. After a mandatory mixer at one of the school’s local bars (free drinks, the horror!), my roommate and I headed back to our apartment, feeling friendless and dejected, only to be intercepted by an acquaintance we had met the previous day. Without warning, she blurted out: “Oh my god, are you guys not on our Facebook thread? I’ll add you right now!!”
A quick glance at the string of private messages back in my room presented a startling revelation. The 12-person conversation was riddled with meet up times and travel ideas, fun anecdotes and phone number exchanges. With the click of a button, I had gone from a shy outcast to a (still shy) member of a secret online community, one exclusive to students who had an account. I had not been granted access to a Facebook thread; I had been granted access to a social life.
The connectedness that social networks provide has been revolutionary. You can talk to people on the other side of the world that you have never met. You can connect with a complete stranger by commenting on the same picture. You can rekindle old relationships with friends that you haven’t spoken to in years. But at what point does this connectivity become dangerous? Where do we draw the line between viewing social networks as tools and social networks as necessities? When did Facebook’s motto change from “sign up and be included” to “sign up or be excluded”?
One look at any company’s “sign up” page reveals how embedded this idea is in our society. Users looking to create an account online no longer have to offer up their email address; they can register with their Facebook account. This one-click option simplifies the sign up process by eliminating the need to verify your email address or fill out pages of basic information. Sign up with Facebook and skip the clunky registration process; that’s the incentive. But this declaration skips over one key detail: if you delete your Facebook, you’ll lose access to all of the services you’ve just linked it to. The promise of convenience masks a wicked message. That is, want to keep using our services? Don’t delete your Facebook.
And why would you even want to? The second you disable your account, one of two things happen: you either feel a wave of relief that you no longer have to see all those college party pictures or you suddenly start wondering if you’re missing the opportunity to be in those college party pictures because you deleted your account and missed the invite.
If your anxiety about connectedness doesn’t drive you back to your technology, you can be sure your friends and family will. A few months ago, I left my phone in my bedroom on purpose. (Bold move, I know.) I needed to disconnect. I could feel my phone growing roots in my palm and in hopes of temporarily shaking my reputation for being overly attached to my tech devices, I decided to get away. When I returned to my room an hour or so later, I found numerous messages on my phone from friends and family – first inquisitive, then angry – asking where I was and why I wasn’t answering my messages.
This story demonstrates two things: one, that I probably need to sit down with my friends and family and discuss with them what the word “obsessive” means; and two, that technology has forced us all into a lose-lose situation. Keep your phone on you at all times, and you’re deemed “addicted” to technology. Leave it at home, and you get reprimanded for trying to disconnect.
I’m not trying to generalize. I realize that there are humans out there that can make friends without the help of Facebook threads and people that can go more than 3 hours without picking up a cell phone or looking at a computer. (If you’re one of those people, please, tell me your secret.) As a media student and someone naturally interested in technology, I have a greater connection to these devices than most. But I don’t think I’m going to be the exception for much longer. Social networks are a powerful tool that are becoming harder and harder to resist.
While staying connected can help some become more social, it can also foster a sense of dependency that is hard to shake. It is a double-edged sword, one that is becoming dangerously difficult to discard.