Social Media and Isolation

Faced with another article on technology and isolation, my hands run down my face. It has become tiresome.

Person in a buble
image via dingatx on Flickr on creative commons

The idea that we are more connected and yet more alone than ever perhaps reached its zenith with the video “Look up”.

It engaged a lot of us and I’ll admit to being one of those who originally shared it. I’ve since regretted that.

It’s straightforwardly false and it ignores the experiences of those for whom technology has been a social lifeline.

It has since been pointed out that the film falls into the trap of what might be called the Golden Age fallacy. The supposedly cold, bleak present is set against times gone by where men were men, you could leave your door unlocked and a pint of beer cost tuppence.

Sarcasm aside, the idea is that in this past people engaged pleasantly with strangers on the bus stop or on the train.

They didn’t.

People hid behind books and papers. We spent plenty of time ignoring each other, the media we did it with was just more limited.

Golden ages to one side, the other problem with this luddite narrative is that it totally ignores the experience of people for whom social media and the internet has enhanced their social lives.

There are at least three such types of people.

Many, for reasons of disability, struggled to physically get to the social centres of the “golden age”. Now not only can they engage with any one of millions from the comfort of their home but the new prominence of their voices has led to the increasing accessibility (though there’s a long way to go) of physical spaces like pubs, clubs and other social centres.

“My friends are scattered like leaves from an old maple”

As Neil Young put it best, many, like myself, have lived in different parts of the world and without social media would struggle to maintain important relationships.

Finally, by connecting billions, social media has allowed niche communities to flourish which would otherwise be too small to take root.

Let’s say that 0.1% of the population of a medium sized city are passionate about medieval accounting procedures. Where I live there’s about half a million people so we’re looking at about 500 people total who get excited about spreadsheets from around 1000AD. Without social media their number is not only limited to 500 max but they would seriously struggle to find each other.

Given a global community of billions and the means to connect them, social media allows such communities to flourish. This is of course not always a good thing. Some communities, such as those focused on violence and hate, we’d probably prefer were isolated. Sadly they are not. The web analytics that the far right website stormfront proudly publishes are in equal parts sad and frightening.

I like to think that overall the effect is positive. Let’s hope I’m right.






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