Virtual friendships & false intimacy

Is there a way to articulate at once the beauty, anxiety, pride and profound sadness of living without falling into an intense self reflection that does not communicate? Expression, authentic expression, with the power to find resonances with other minds, other bodies, is a continuous struggle against banality, against the nihilism that rushes in when we find it impossible to express ourselves in a way that will be understood.

Online social networks like facebook appear to offer us vast opportunities to express ourselves and they do change the way that people interact. They give us more options for how to package and deliver information about ourselves and reshape the way we think about privacy; making our interests and social connections more transparent and enabling people to reveal pieces of themselves in online profiles that might otherwise be known only by intimate friends.

The consequences of this are not neutral. When the world is conceived of as a global marketplace, every interaction can seem to be about buying and selling. People are encouraged to blur the distinction between self expression and creating a marketable image. The forms of expression supported by social networking technology are one recent example of this, but all of our communication is potentially affected by this posturing. When every post you make might be read by your mother, boss, or potential customer, what someone is willing to say can become highly artificial.

This artificiality is always boring, but it is most troubling when it replaces active connections.

Our ability to find out a great deal about each other has increased exponentially but our ability to be changed and moved as we engage in the process of getting to know someone else remains the same. There is a surge of excitement when we connect with someone. It may be someone we have not heard from in years or have been meaning to

get to know better, someone we share an interest with or who we think is cute. Friendship blossoms awkwardly over time and is renewed through continued engagement.

On social networking sites this excitement and possibility often withers once our initial curiosity is satisfied. Personal information and status updates are imparted without direct, intentional interaction and connection can atrophy into mutual voyeurism. We watch the online persona of the other person shift, thumb through carefully selected pictures of their life, and notice changes in status now and then. Each of these things replacing what might otherwise have been an actual conversation.

Transparency regarding practices and intentions among people engaged in a project together is not the same thing as the transparency of internet profiles. Part of getting to know someone is learning to decipher the emotional truths encoded in their behavior, a process which takes time. Reading someone else’s profile obscures this and encourages us to feel like an intimate friend without engaging in the intimate work of building friendship.

The way we communicate with people we already know is also affected. When you can catch up with someone by reading about them, you do not need to reach out to them as often to find out how they are doing. People come to expect that things which have been blogged about or entered in a profile do not need to be explained or articulated to friends on an individual basis. People can come out as queer, communicate changes in relationship status, express their political views and talk about their favorite books or bands without speaking directly to anyone.

This lack of contact is compounded by the constraints of the format itself.

Any time we are compelled to describe ourselves succinctly, complex dynamics are necessarily shorthanded, kept below the maximum characters allowed in any given field. The danger of this shorthand is in the way it encourages us to think and talk about ourselves from a removed place; to present an image to the world that does not acknowledge the expansiveness of our lived emotional experience; that flattens it into a story that everyone already knows.

As social networking technology expands into our lives, this flattening becomes more prevalent and it is harder and harder to create moments of dynamism where we can relate to people as something other than a collection of identities; as entities who are teeming with a multitude of desires and experiences rather than as categories of people who have been defined completely by a grand historical narrative about who we are, where we come from and what we like.

We are each a bundle of intentions, insecurities, experiences, and relations. It is important to remember that as much as these elements are shaped by larger dynamics of power and culture, they are also warm, living, embodied things with permeable boundaries and the more we see them as precise definitions – as cold, absolute and objective divisions – the less we are able to understand nuance and complexity in ourselves and each other.

The psychological impact of these sites is also shaped by a culture of celebrity.

In thinking about the way that celebrity operates on the smallest scale – as ‘large personalities’ within our social circles – I am inclined to think about the social distance implied. The lives of people who we choose to regard in this way seem both removed from and more vivid than our own subjective lives. To engage with someone as if they were a celebrity is to engage from a safe distance with someone whose life is at once deemed more important and less real than our own.

In a sense, social networking technology has the power to turn us all into celebrities in this way: to project manicured images into the world that can attract friends, fans, and followers with their own momentum; that can build reputations and social connections which are not based on any real world interaction.

I am troubled by all of these things even as I find myself doing some of them. I am seduced by the way that my own life seems more glamorous when I look at it from farther away, I find myself checking my profile regularly, hoping to be comforted by its careful arrangement of words and pictures, even though I already know how frustrated or satisfied, painful or joyful my life really is at any given moment.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the extent to which these emotional responses to online social networks are inevitable. These platforms can be useful and do allow people to find each other who never would have otherwise. There are ways to adjust privacy settings and create personal rules of engagement that minimize the extent to which one represents or seeks out false intimacy. Like any new technology, the social effect of it depends on the customs we develop around it, and on the realms of our lives in which we allow it to operate.

I can’t help feeling, however, that these sites are a tempting substitute for society in a world where so many people are alienated from themselves and each other. They are filled with diversions for people who are aching for a sense of connection and engagement and often inhibit as much interaction as they make possible.

It is difficult to remain critical for very long of things that become ubiquitous. Technological abilities developed and promoted in the context of capitalism are customized and can easily feel like benign and inevitable extensions of our psyche into the world. Maintaining a critical awareness of the things that shape our lives and constrict the ways in which we are able to grow is important; however we end up picking our battles.