By Holly Herring
I decided to live my life out loud for a while.
I was pretty brutally honest about myself. I voiced a lot of things in public spaces and gathered a pretty decent following. But I think I’m kind of done with it now.
I discovered something really strange about social media. It’s like living in a fishbowl. People come and stare at me. They study what I am doing. When they read all this public life stuff I put out there, they started feeling like they knew me. Some people—people I had never met—started armchair quarterbacking in my life.
You know what an armchair quarterback is, right?
It’s someone who’s watching a football game on television from their armchair, eating snacks, criticizing the referees calls, making comments about the bad plays, and yelling at the coaches as if the coaches on the television are listening. In short, they are total authorities on an image they see and are more right than anyone.
So, I would post a picture of my dog doing something silly and soon enough I would receive a message telling me about how dogs don’t belong on the furniture. Imagine you’re walking through your neighborhood, see somebody’s dog on their couch in their own living room through the window, then knock on their door to give them unsolicited dog training advice.
Similarly I’d post about some scenario that had taken place and I’d receive another private message from someone telling me how to avoid that snafu in the future.
I started realizing by reading comment sections in other people’s posts that this internet distance had really emboldened some folks, typically strangers, to really step into the territory of “mind your business.”
I think deep thoughts pretty regularly, typically in the middle of the night when there’s nobody to talk to. I guess my mind races. Well, I was up really thinking about that one night. My conclusions were two-fold.
- People tell me they appreciate my insights when they read them and it opens their minds.
- People get all up in my business in ways that would never fly in person.
Then I thought more about why this was occurring.
I had always thought that social media allowed me to stay close and connected to people I either rarely saw or never got an audience with in the first place. Indeed, I know a lot about my friend Anna’s cats in Minnesota. I mean, I’ve never met my friend Anna. We’ve never even spoken on the phone. I don’t even regularly “like” her posts by clicking the thumbs up button. Okay, I was stumbling on the heart of the problem already.
Who the heck is Anna and why am I obsessively reading posts about her cat’s veterinary visits?
Sure, I can give you a solid 10 years of her history with her cats, but how strange is that? I called her my “friend.” Maybe reading about her cats for years and having a regular view into her life has created this false sense of closeness that wouldn’t exist in person. Maybe people reading about my dog and my insights on life feel a sense of closeness to me that isn’t accurate either.
My thoughts went deeper that night. I have a friend from my youth on my social media who comes all the way to my county about once a month for work. I haven’t seen her in over 30 years. I mentioned in a comment one day that next month when she’s in town we should meet up. She agreed wholeheartedly. It’s been 12 years now. I’ve not seen her in person. Somehow just reading about me and seeing photos is enough. “Maybe next month,” she writes. Maybe…
I’m starting to believe that the idea of social media connecting us and making us closer is a myth—maybe even a marketing ploy. When I think about it, I think I have far fewer in person interactions now with friends than I ever have. But if you ask me about my friend Jennifer, I’ll tell you she’s lived all over the world. Her kids have really great names. Somehow her cat has traveled internationally with her family for YEARS. She and her spouse do all sorts of fun stuff together. Their new house is probably my favorite of all the houses they’ve lived in because of the built in movie theater. But I haven’t ever met any of her children, seen that cat in person, or seen her in 15 years.
This social media thing gives us the illusion of closeness.
We make judgments about their relationships from it. We decide if they are using the best medication for their medical condition based on it. And, we feel artificially close to strangers. Not to mention, we put off or completely avoid in person interactions because we already know all there is to know. Or, so we think.
Life in the fishbowl creates artificial intimacy.
I’m realizing I don’t feel more connected to folks; I feel more neglected. I feel judged. Sometimes I overstep my bounds in other people’s online life as well.
I’ve heard it said in recovery circles that the opposite of addiction is connection. And, while I think that statement simplifies something far more complicated and personal, it’s kind of accurate. Use of substances definitely increased during the COVID pandemic and overdoses as well, especially in younger people. We had a lot of social media interaction and Zoom Gatherings during COVID and not so much in person friendship. Younger folks tend to be the largest users of social media. Is there a connection between the lack of in person connections and addiction? I’d be hard pressed to say “no.”
So, is living in a fishbowl and waving off the armchair quarterbacks good for me? Is what insight gleaned from my personal musings and pictures of my dog really worth artificial connection? I’m really leaning towards saying “no” to all that.
For the last month or so I’ve been preparing professional social media accounts for myself, so that I can stay relevant, and paying attention to who actually interacts with me in person.
Who is really out there? I can tell you it’s several people. Sam and I had a fantastic lunch recently that he initiated. I’ve seen Emily’s dog—in person—so many times. Granted, I’ve seen Emily too. Sarah is rowdy as ever, dragging me with her through the political scene, pizza in hand. Michelleanne traveled far, far away to visit me. There’s several more real, in person people.
But there’s people who don’t have the ability to be physically present right now too. There are some who call me and they text as well. Morgan, for example, is a valued friend who I don’t think would ever lose track of me. Weston is geographically undesirable as well, but he always stays in contact outside social media.
I’m not saying that people who I only interact with on social media are “bad” or “absent” etc. I just think that, while I enjoy reading about Anna’s cats, I need to keep in mind that I should mind my P’s and Q’s and not get too comfortable telling her what to do. The closeness we share in my mind, might not be the closeness we share in her reality—and vice versa.
As I put the finishing touches on my personal life change of discontinuing my social media, I’ll keep these thoughts centered. I might lose some enjoyable reading. I’m definitely going to have unanswered questions about Anna’s cats. I might feel like I’m losing some closeness. But I might actually be gaining some connection that I’m lacking. I might really enjoy a life outside my fishbowl again. Also, I will keep in mind that this might be permanent or it might be temporary.
There’s opportunities that arise when I make time and space in my life for them. Genuine connections are invaluable. And here’s the big one:
Nobody is too busy to meet up with you for 12 long years. If you believe that, I got some land in Florida to sell you and a bridge in New York as well.
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