The ongoing pandemic has ensured more of our life is spent online than before. Even the scrooges of social media or sceptic shunners, like my husband, have rallied around. Before the pandemic, he had a linkedIn account as a career necessity. Now, he is on Twitter and Instagram and refuses to follow me (*insert long-suffering sigh here*).
Since most of our life is online these days we have collected a plethora of online friends, lovers and haters like the proverbial stone that gathers a lot of moss if rooted to one spot.
One could argue that online life is also real life, but for the purpose of clarity, I will differentiate between them as two separate planes of existence.
This is all great. Having online buddies to bid adieu to our forced isolation? All great, I say.
The problem with any social media relationship is that it’s a warped world view. A tunnel vision so to speak. The pictures on my social media are those that have me dressed and made up to perfection for parties. They are filtered with light and effects.
My point is, you don’t know all of the person. You know bits and parts of the person online. The person that is shown in select chosen moments to the online world. We can modulate our responses, spell check our chats and research the words typed to us and seem like we are well aware or informed. We can’t do that in real life. We can add filters to our pictures, brighten, heck even change our features and add glowing effects. In real life, we have uneven pigmented skin tone, swollen or sunken under-eye woes, dark circles, pimple marks or scars and creeping lines coming up everywhere we don’t want them to.
We have control to modulate our online presence. This makes me feel like an imposter when someone calls me intelligent or beautiful online. These people have never met me in real life. Their concept of the compliment may not define me at all.
But as human beings being in complete control is like holding water in our fist. We are creatures impacted by our circumstances. We react to our surroundings. Our responses to our online friends can be skewed at times. They can be dictated by numerous real-life events. A spousal fight or work stress can plummet our mood, cause an irritable remark and we’re labelled obnoxious. A preoccupation can translate as inconsideration. A calamity we might be dealing with can lead us to being categorised as oversensitive or emotional. We might not shout out these woes to the online world as the point is to escape them.
However, it is also logical that we reveal more of our real selves online as there is a wall between us and any physical threat or disgrace. We are more inhibited in real life but behind a computer, we feel strangely empowered to bare our soul and mind without much fear of repercussions. We abuse and use curse words with vigour. There is a surreal quality to online interactions. They are strung somewhere between reality and a safe fantastical world where confidences and heart to hearts are shared. As a result, we may end up knowing more about someone than their family and friends would do. The way we comment on posts may reveal aspects of our psyche that even we may be oblivious to. Some astute observers can string together these interactions and form our psychological profile. Online algorithms already do it with flair.
The psychology behind revealing more information online is based on cues related to heuristics. Penn State researchers came up with twelve such cues: control, instant gratification, transparency, machine, publicness, mobility, authority, bandwagon, reciprocity, sense-of-community, community-building and self-preservation. For example, people with a strong ‘bandwagon’ belief system may spew information if others provide it first. Many times, posts where an anonymous OP shares an incident of sexual abuse have people chipping in by admitting it happened to them too. Without this kind of prompt, they will rarely share such personal information about themselves. We are more tempted to complete our online linked in profiles if a number of our colleagues have completed theirs as well.
Now, there is an apparent paradox here. Which one is it? Do we know more or less of a person through social media? Another more relevant question to counteract the first would be, do we need to know everything about a person or just what the person may mean to us? We need to also keep in mind that their meaning may relate to a part of our journey in life, as people themselves are ever-changing.
I have friends who I don’t talk to for months on end and then I talk to them every day for months. Then there are those friends I rarely talk to ever, but they have a special place in my heart, they’ll remember occasions close to my heart without a reminder and they’ll be there to share in all those joys and sorrows. Then there are friends I talk to every day. I feel restless and incomplete if I go without a conversation with them for more than a few days. I’ve had terrible fights and misunderstandings with some friends and that hasn’t affected our relationship equilibrium. The boat of our friendship has sailed right through storms to calmer waters. Some of these relationships are online and some offline.
Hence, take character building on social media with a pinch of salt. A little less judgment perhaps. If you’ve known me for less than two minutes on social media hold on to that label. At the same time, don’t love me or hate me based on those two minutes. A relationship at the end of the day, whether online or real life, is only worthwhile if it lasts through thick and thin, through misunderstandings and fights and through good and bad times. Those are the only type of relationships worth taking seriously.