Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Social media and false intimacy

by Patrick Vecchio

I was searching YouTube the other day for a Jason Isbell song I thought a LiveJournal friend should hear. I found the song, and while I was listening to it, I scrolled through the listener comments and spotted this one:

Jason,Your the reason I play_ guitar and write songs. But most of all id like to thank you for saving my life in a lot of ways. I will always take playing for a room of 15 drunk guys on hard times and connecting with them, over making radio bullshit. i dunno what life has in store for me, but i hope its a life as a working musician, getting by and helping people through rough shit. Shit that your music has helped me through. Thank you Jason, keep playin for those who understand, leave the rest.

Setting aside its sincerity, the comment made me wonder: Did the writer think his words would reach Isbell? I hope they did, but my hopes are faint because of the false intimacy of social media.

Admittedly, I have a limited perspective. I am on Facebook, although I rarely visit it, comment on other people’s statuses or tell people I “like” something or someone. I have a LinkedIn profile, but all I do is say OK to anyone desperate enough to want to add me to her or his network. I maintain this blog, which I post to in bursts—not the best way to attract and keep readers. My credibility as a critic of social media is shaky.

Even so, the concept of false intimacy rolls around in my brain like a marble rolling around in a bathtub. The rolling marble got particularly loud one day this spring. The university where I teach puts on a sports symposium every other year, and this year, one of the panelists was someone whose writing I’ve followed and admired for years. I spent 90 minutes alone with him as I drove him from the Buffalo airport to the university.

I thought his writing had given me a pretty good idea of what kind of a guy he was, but he was as charming as a canker sore. I tried to get him to talk about work of his I was familiar with, but it just annoyed him. The trip was so unpleasant that I told the symposium organizer to find someone else to drive him back to the airport the next day.

This leads me to wonder how well we know people who exist to us only as words. I like to think my blog friends would find that if they met me, they would see my online personality was just an extension of who I am in person. At least I hope that’s the case. I don’t know, though.

This knowing-but-not-knowing idea resurfaced a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. I received a friend request from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize until I dropped the name after the hyphen of her last name. It turns out she was a classmate from high school. Her friend request puzzled me because I don’t remember even speaking to her back then—that’s how different our orbits were. When I replied to her request, I said it was “good to hear from you after 40 years.”

She wrote back. She has had a distinguished career and might be someone you’ve seen on TV or read about. She asked the usual questions about me, and then our online conversation faded. I told her I’m always glad to hear success stories involving our classmates, so I was glad she reached out and had done so well. Even so, I still don’t know her much better than I knew her in high school.

The question is, why did she reach out? To put on the other shoe, why did I hope my response would prompt a reply?

I suspect it’s because we want to be in touch. We seek significance in our lives, so we post snippets of them on Facebook, we write about them on our blogs, and we tweet them—and we’re gratified if someone responds. A blog post that gets zero hits feels like failure.

We constantly whip out our cell phones to see whose message we’ve missed. Once I post this, I’ll begin checking to see who responds, and how quickly. We want to be wired, networked, in on the conversation, even if the conversation has the substance of meringue.

Because the Internet makes it so easy, we reach out to musicians, authors and other people we don’t know. The chances of reaching them are far better than they used to be, and from experience, I know how gratifying it is to hear back from someone whom we respect, even idolize to a degree.

I once emailed a writer whose work I had read in The Sun magazine. I told her how much I admired her short story, but I also told her how reading it deflated me as a writer because she was much more talented. Quite unexpectedly, she responded with encouraging words. Several months later I read another story of hers, and I emailed her again, thinking she wouldn’t reply and might think I’m a 59-year-old fanboy. Instead, she replied how much she appreciated my comments because her piece, in her words, “cost me a lot” emotionally. Had this exchange happened 30 years ago, it would have occurred at a snail mail pace, which would not have been nearly as satisfying as our wired world’s instant gratification.

We cannot grasp how many people know about our online personalities (hello, NSA), and as a result, when we write, we can’t answer one of the two basic questions a writer asks—“Who is my audience?” Nor can we, as an audience, truly know the writer. On the car ride from Buffalo, my favorite writer turned out to be a dick; the short story writer turned out to be someone whose responses were unexpectedly sincere.

Maybe the person who posted the YouTube comment to Isbell got a degree of satisfaction from it. After all, we never can know if someone has read a comment and simply not responded. So we continue to reach out to expand our network, to learn more about people we know only superficially, and we hope they live up to our expectations. This is one way we try to make our place in the world a little more certain—but in our age, such certainty is elusive.

6 replies »

  1. I think social media intimacy is very interesting. Even the idea of “social media” is profound. After hundreds of years of media speaking at us–pamphlets, books, papers, radio, television–people can speak back. It’s empowering, I guess.

  2. Interesting to think about. I too wonder about the intimacy and communication with social media. I currently have two “friends” on Facebook that I’ve never met. We communicated through blog comments enough, I guess we decided to give each other access to our real lives. This is especially odd since I’ve “ignored” a slew of people that I know in real life.

  3. I know it has become something of a pop psychology fad to put things through the introvert/extrovert filter lately, but that was my first reaction on reading this. Who is the real you? Is it the one people meet or the one they read? I imagine introverts would overwhelmingly pick the latter and extroverts, the former. As an introvert, I have no problem with people thinking that I, the writer, am different from the person people meet. The person I am around strangers or in groups of 3 or more is a mask I put on to deal with how draining social interaction is. Or if I’m already emotionally gassed, they’ll just see someone grouchy.

    You’re right, though. We post things to get feedback and validation, but that validation is inherently superficial. Write a post about your deepest feelings and almost no one will respond. Post a picture of your cat or dog and everyone “likes” you. Social media is both a drug and a tool for behavioral modification.

  4. Pat, this is a fine piece. I owe you a long message via another SM network (actually wrote it twice and somehow deleted it as I went to post). This just makes me feel guiltier (and irritated as hell at my occasional technological incompetence).

    I don’t know about other people – I am not necessarily what I write. So while I think the writer you cite as example was just being an ass, unnecessary and unacceptable as that is, I occasionally (as do you, perhaps, fine writer that you are) don’t want to talk about it. Fikshun’s comment seems to me spot on concerning this topic.

    What I find most disturbing about Web 2.0 is that social media has elevated the mundane to importance (LOL Catz, anyone?) and countenanced the unconscionable in online behavior (this and every “serious” blog has to battle trolls regularly) simply because the anonymity of the social web makes people think they can behave in ways they wouldn’t dare to behave in f2f situations. So you raise the important question about the people we are on the web versus the people we are in f2f life – as the social web matures, maybe answers will emerge about this question that we can agree upon.

  5. I am what I write, but….

    One thing I learned giving speeches is that people would walk up and engage me at odd points in the conversation, and later after book signings they’d do the same. They’d launch into this personal story or something and I’d be lost. I finally figured out what was going on was that as they listened or read me, they were mentally answering me. In other words, they were having a silent converasation with me and I could only hear one side of it, mine. As a result, they always presumed an intimacy that frankly weirded me out. I’m delighted that my thoughts tuouched them, but it created a one sided intimacy in which oddly enough, I wasn’t a participant, even though I started it.

  6. I have a thought about why she might have contacted you after all of those years on Facebook (was it?). She may have had a life changing event and been told to reach out to people. It is interesting. I have been disappointed in one way or another by everyone I met from online. I had this idea in my idea who they might be/what they might be like and was always disappointed eventually with them. There are people with all sorts of personality disorders that present themselves to be completely different than they really are in person and online.