Followers and Friends: Changes in the Digital Social Landscape

Written by Amina Amdeen.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

The amenities of the modern age we live in are innumerable. Our digital connections span the globe. In the same amount of time that it would take you to text your mother in the next town over, you could direct message an old acquaintance in a café in Japan. Global connections are certainly nothing new, but the accessibility of such experiences and the frequency with which they occur have risen dramatically. The modern layman can have as many as all of his relationships with other people existing via the internet. But how often does this actually happen?

Until very recently, online communication was mostly thought of as a way to connect with people already important to you, such as family members, childhood friends, coworkers, or business partners. In episode of the Netflix original series Mortified, Tyler recounts how he spent years talking to a girl from his school through AIM messenger… even though she lived down the street. Tyler would eventually confess his feelings to her. His story, besides being hilarious, highlights the sense of safety afforded by communicating electronically with someone you would otherwise not have the courage of talking to. However, with the advent of social media trail blazers like Myspace and Facebook, growing your friend count and therefore your following, social standing, and connectivity became an objective. The barrier for socializing on these platforms was continually lowered as its usership grew. It wasn’t a large leap from this to online dating, which saw the rise of whole websites dedicated to helping people meet each other. Suddenly, the awkwardness of meeting someone you like and asking them out was minimized, and you could scroll through profiles with the ease of flipping through a Sears catalog. Dating websites have made it infinitely easier and faster to identify and interact with romantic interests in a way that minimizes the fear of rejection and the awkwardness of meeting a stranger.

Besides social media, online forums like Reddit are another place where people make connections. They mimic the shared interests setting where most people would meet friends in the real world, but are a lot more open. These forums also foster unity in people who are otherwise unlikely to be open about their views, such as minorities, people who hold unconventional religious or political viewpoints, and racists and misogynists. For some of these forums, “in-person” meetups are a regular fixture, which helps people engage their interests and interact in a more conventional social setting.

Another setting where the online social life manifests is on gaming platforms, where more enduring friendships can develop. One Reddit user posted about how he was a “changed man” after a trip he took with some online friends he had known for 10 years through gaming.

“I went from a depressed, antisocial person who dislikes touch [sic] to a loving cheerful person who wants all the hugs in little over a week and I just feel so loved. I had no clue friends like these are real, I had no clue it could happen to me.”

He is anything but an outlier. The appeal of having online friends is multifold. For one, you have the choice of basically anyone in the world to be friends with, and because distance is no barrier, online friends are an ideal choice for people who are geographically isolated or incapable of traveling. Technology is an amazing facilitator, especially for individuals with social anxiety, as bypassing “in person” interactions lessens the fear of judgement. Furthermore, it is also convenient because you can engage with your online friends wherever you are and whenever you have the time. Under the guise of relative anonymity, those friendships tend to be deeper since individuals feel like they can open up.

However, there are some shortcomings with having friends that you cannot meet in person. Important non-verbal and physical cues are missed when it comes to communication, which makes it more difficult to ascertain another’s personality or mood. Another shortcoming is that as human beings we require a certain level of physical affection. Some people might not be lonely per se but they might have a physical loneliness and a deficit of physical affection. This could have a profound impact on personal wellbeing in the long term.

The next fifty years or so will see the normalization of meeting someone online first before meeting them in person. Individuals with social anxiety and physical or communicative disabilities will have an easier time connecting with other people, and as a result the stigmas and misconceptions surrounding our internet social lives will be lessened.

While online friendships are increasing, they are unlikely to replace “in person” friendships anytime soon. Whether these changes are inherently harmful or beneficial for our social well-being is yet to be seen. However, one thing is for sure: like almost everything else that is profoundly affected by technological innovation, our social lives will never be the same again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s