The internet’s most enticing proposition is that it is a space where no one need ever feel alone. Friendship and romance are just a few clicks away, and difference is seen as a badge of sophistication, not of shame. What the internet promises is contact. It seems to offer a solution to those crippled with social anxiety in their physical lives, a way out of the loneliness to those who perceive everyday human interaction as threatening. People can develop bonds through their shared interests, without ever leaving the safety of their bedrooms.
But propinquity, as those living in urban environments know only too well, does not equate to intimacy. Access to others is not enough to dispel our own inherent feelings of isolation. Some feel their loneliest in a crowd. The process of communication is formed only in small part by words; the rest is body language, eye contact and tone of voice.
Behind the screen the lonely person can maintain control. They can write themselves into the person they want to be, and construct other people’s identities to feed into this illusion as well. One can filter one’s image, shrouding unappealing elements, and emerge improved, as a digital avatar aimed to attract likes. But the social engagement this produces is not intimacy. How can intimacy possibly be achieved when every exchange is so carefully curated? Creating and presenting a perfected self may attract Instagram followers and Facebook friends but it won’t fix one’s own internal dissatisfaction; in order to feel good about oneself, one needs to be seen as a whole person, awkward and unhappy as well as charismatic and photo-ready. After all, through social media it is only carefully chosen glimpses of ourselves that we offer up for evaluation. We should be wary of the capacity of online spaces to fulfil us in the way we wish they would. With all the technology available to us, and the infinite choice it offers, we have the chance to re-imagine others as we wish them to be, not as they truly are; it’s a seductive but really quite unsafe habit of mind.
The idea that communicating through a computer screen ensures security is a dreadful illusion. The once reliable sheet of bright glass no longer separates the real from the virtual. Increasingly, internet users have become aware that their online following can turn on them at any moment, resulting in the confusing of retribution with misdirected hostility, in a frenzy of shaming and scapegoating. Twitter itself is essentially a cyclic approval machine: one surrounds oneself with people who feel the same way, and will validate one’s feelings. If someone gets in the way, they’re screamed out. It isn’t social justice; it’s a cathartic alternative.
This atmosphere of surveillance and punishment destroys intimacy, fostering in its place only an ironic disconnectedness. My own sense of ease with Facebook began to diminish when the Spotted at TCD page started posting shots of people unaware: asleep on couches, embracing their significant others, and unknowingly exposing their bottoms as they hunched over textbooks in the library. Realising that it has become a site of shaming and derision at the expense of others eroded my belief that it was a safe space.
A false refuge from loneliness
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a technique that focuses on finding solutions to people’s anxieties and neuroses, is often delivered through computer programmes as a kind of D.I.Y therapy session. One woman, who sought help through the NHS after a serious bout of postnatal depression was told to use this programme in between sessions: “I don’t think anything has made me feel as lonely and isolated as having a computer programme ask me how I felt on a scale of one to five, and – after I’d clicked the sad emoticon on the screen – telling me it was ‘sorry to hear that’ in a pre-recorded voice,” she told journalist Oliver Bergman. Her point is that what vulnerable people need is real human connection, that fundamental feeling of being listened to, and hopefully understood, by another. Every thoughtful person knows that self-understanding isn’t something that can be achieved through filling out an online questionnaire, or indeed through any form of technology. Recipients of therapy may have issues with their mental health, but they probably aren’t under the illusion that a computer can feel bad for them.
My own use of social media peaked during a period of isolation. It was the autumn of 2014 and I had just moved to Dublin. In many ways, the internet made me feel safe. I liked the contact I got from it, the chatting with friends, the stockpiling of positive regard, the Facebook likes (the little functions designed to boost egos). For the most part, it seemed to work well, this way of existing, the gifting back of attention and information with others. It felt like a community, a lifeline considering how cut-off I otherwise was. But as time went on, I began to sense that something was changing, and that it was harder to achieve a genuine connection.
Likes themselves seemed drained of meaning; they can measure someone’s popularity, but usually, liking something is just a way of letting a friend know they were heard, a kind of mechanical pat on the back. In a digital landscape built on attention and visibility, what matters is not so much the content of one’s updates but their existing at all, and the reaction they invoke. Social networking works in a system of metrics, metrics that help form hierarchies (perhaps to mimic actual offline hierarchies). To find out how popular someone is on the internet, one need just check the average like count they harvest through their pictures and posts. This awareness of rank feeds the underlying anxiety and insecurity embedded within these networks.
Photography becomes an acquisitive ritual on nights out for most young people, with that creepy mantra “pics or it didn’t happen” taken as social dogma.
Social networking is still, at its roots, corporations’ attempts to map users’ activity and create capital. Companies store data and utilise it to tailor advertisements. This marriage of the corporate and the social, the uncomfortable sense of being watched by invisible eyes, means we have to be more careful of what we say, and where. This fear is made all the more potent when we realise that our digital traces will be there long after we die. Every stupid remark we make, every Google search, and every embarrassing club photo can never be erased entirely, and they add exponentially to the ever-growing distance between the static, online self, which is recorded in a timeline for as long as the servers survive, and the always changing real self, which strays further and further from the past self (still existent online, though not in reality save for in the memories of the person) every day.
We are being watched and we cannot control our ever-morphing digital surroundings. We need to be seen, and this need frightens us. But as long as we can distinguish the real from the virtual, and encourage compassionate usage, intimacy may stand a chance. Critiques of the technological society often seem possessed by a fear that what is happening is profoundly unnatural, that we are becoming post-human, but our anxieties surrounding image are innately human; am I attractive? Do I need improvement?
We mustn’t disregard the internet’s ability to dissolve isolation, to build community and closeness. It is not a coincidence that the trans rights movement has thrived in a time when self-creation is facilitated by technology. The internet is often used as a tool by those whose gender, race or sexuality are considered marginal or taboo, to construct identities and online communities from which they can draw strength. Perhaps we are capable of adapting, of acclimatising to this environment of unparalleled exposure to find the togetherness we crave.