Ivan Butković, Social media and human interaction

Is social media the death of human interaction? Is perhaps its saving grace? Or is it none of it? Arguments have been made for all three, but before we can even begin to attempt to find an answer to this highly complex issue, we must first look at one of the most controversial clashes of the 21st century – online vs. offline.

Airplane mode on

Nowadays it is almost impossible to draw a line between where our online and offline lives diverge. Many newspaper articles and scientific studies tend to present our online and offline lives as two separate entities, as two paths that we get to choose from. Whenever I read about these phenomena I picture the two roads that diverge in Robert Frost’s iconic poem “The Road Not Taken”. If we imagine offline as the road less traveled by, and online as the road many have chosen, journalists and researches would then play the role of Frost, as they, more often than not, tend to present offline as the more desirable path. Offline is, according to many, more desirable because it is “real”, i.e. it means that our interactions with the people in our lives that happen face-to-face (hence forth f2f) are more palpable, immediate and therefore more valid. When we first consider this opinion it seems perfectly fine, logical even. But there is one big issue with this view – exclusivity. It is often presented that if we choose offline as the preferred lifestyle, it means that we forgo online, and vice versa. In today’s world, I would argue that these two can’t be separated. They can’t be separated because people can’t seem to even agree upon what is meant by online and offline. As Gismondi states in his article, some consider apps like WhatsApp to be offline because they imply private communication, even though in order to communicate via apps such as WhatsApp, we literally have to go online. So, if we can’t even agree upon what is meant by online and offline, how can we claim that they are two separate entities?

I would argue, that nowadays offline doesn’t even exist anymore, at least not in the way it did 15 or 20 years ago, but rather that we live Airplane mode lives. If we imagine life as a series of transit flights, occasionally we will have to turn the Airplane mode on, i.e. go offline, but only temporarily. The moment the flight is over we turn the Airplane mode off and we are back online again. The reason why I believe the Airplane mode is a good analogy for the way we live with technology nowadays is because when we turn our Airplane mode on, it doesn’t mean that our online life ceases to exist, but that we are simply temporarily unavailable. Because of how integral technology has become, we can’t go offline even if we wanted to. Our jobs, academic success and even personal lives have become dependant on technology. We lead online lives with occasional offline moments.

The double standard of communication, i.e. inclusive exclusivity

So, if live in an Airplane mode limbo between online and offline, what does this mean for human interaction? Do we know how to communicate without the use of social media? I believe that the answer here is once again yes and no. Yes, because online and offline communication are too different to compare. We don’t communicate the same way via email, Facebook or Twitter as we do in everyday, f2f communication. Even the style of communication, formal or informal, is different in terms delivery. We don’t address our professors the same way when we send them an email and when we see them in person. In terms of social media, I believe it changes our attitude and personality a little bit. People seem to become bolder online, saying things in a way that is much more blunt and direct than in f2f communication. Baring all of this in mind, the way we use social media has started to influence our day-to-day lives and our social network feeds seem to have crossed over into our real lives. It has become very common for people to be surprised when they meet someone in person after communicating with them online, mostly in the sense that they are much more shy and reserved in real life. Online communication gives us the illusion that there are no consequences for our online actions in real life, when in fact there are many, and more often than not, people have to do damage control and downplay what was said online.

We seem to be living in a time of double standards and hypocrisy in terms what is socially acceptable online and offline. While it is generally agreed upon that cliques and any form of abuse are wrong in real life, we constantly see both these things happen online, but for some reason the fact that they occur on the Internet makes them less serious and less consequential, even though cyber-bullying is one of the main causes of suicide among teenagers in the USA, for instance. The Internet has transformed the world into a global village and that seems to have made everything more acceptable. While it is heavily frowned upon to choose our social circles based on race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality and religion, it is perfectly acceptable to choose our social circles based solely on common interests, like taste in film, music, fashion etc and to discriminate accordingly. The fact that this happens on an international level somehow seems to make it perfectly acceptable. We live in the age of inclusive exclusivity.

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Conclusion – originals and remakes

However, this is not a new phenomenon. We have always chosen our social circles according to common interests and discriminated accordingly. The only novelty here is that is happening on Instagram and not on the playground. The sooner we realize that social media has only changed the channels of communication and not the basis, the sooner we’ll able to take responsibility for our actions. Instead of high fiving each other when we agree on something, we double tap and retweet. Instead of developing several copies of photos, we share them via various online platforms. Social media and technology can’t save human interaction nor can they destroy it. They are simply mediums we choose. Whether or not interaction will fall apart is entirely up to us. I don’t see a problem with people using social media on a daily basis. I think it is a good thing, especially if you can’t see the people you care about for whatever reason. We just have to remember that once upon a time telephones and televisions were taught to be the death of human interaction. Emails and direct messaging are just remakes of letters and Instagram profiles are just remakes of photo albums and diaries. If technologies that were once considered new didn’t bring about the death of human interaction, neither should social media. Technology can’t destroy, nor can it save human interaction. Only we have the power to do so, and we can do it equally as well with f2f conversations or a status updates.