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Nearly a decade ago, the first Internet influencers openly discussed what they referred to as the “social media paradox.” In short, how is that online media platforms calling themselves “social” seemed to be designed for people with little or no social skills? The easy answer, of course, is that they were founded and created largely by Silicon Valley tech nerds with no social skills of their own. (If you’ve ever seen the film “The Social Network” about Facebook, this is obvious). But what if there’s more to it than just that? In hindsight, here are just a few of the reasons why the social media paradox persists to this day.
1 – Social media has fundamentally changed the way we think about relationship-building
In the real world, people form relationships over a period of weeks, months, and even years. A friendship at work, for example, was probably created by long days and nights of bonding at the office, or by shared challenges and difficulties in the workplace. A romantic relationship takes time to develop, as you learn more and more about the person. But on social media, all of that relationship building can take place literally overnight. If you join a new company, for example, you’ll probably become “friends” with people on your first day. If you’re a young teen or millennial, you’ve probably had a romantic relationship in which you met, dated and then broke up, all over social media.
In short, social media has fundamentally changed the way we think about relationships by speeding up the process of forming these relationships in the first place and then dramatically lowering the bar as to what it means to be in a relationship. It might be exciting to realize that you have hundreds of “friends” – but how many of those “friends” are actually people you can count on in an emergency or time of crisis?
2 – Social media has convinced us that meeting online is the same as meeting in person
Perhaps the biggest change over the past decade is how social media has convinced us that brief, online interactions are the same as long, face-to-face meetings. And this is really the fault of all technology, not just social media. If you think about the evolution of technology in the 20th century, it was perhaps inevitable that this would be the case – with every new technological innovation (the phone, the TV, the Internet), it became easier and easier for people to have “social” experiences even if they were completely alone.
And the big social media platforms have gone one step further, convincing us that a fleeting, virtual exchange on social media is the same as a real-life meeting. Why meet in-person for a coffee when you can just comment on a social media post? The one big complaint about social media a decade ago was that it was impossible to capture all the little visual clues of a real-life meeting. And so now we have emoticons, stickers, filters and “reaction” buttons. A simple text message can now convey so much about the overall social context.
3 – Social media has time-shifted the social experience
In much the same way as the first DVR time-shifted the TV viewing experience by making it possible to watch any show whenever you wanted on your schedule, social media has time-shifted the social experience. While some forms of social media (such as text messages via WhatsApp) do require some form of immediate attention or response, almost all other social media platforms allow you to conduct completely asynchronous social communication with anyone in the world. It now seems perfectly normal and “socially acceptable” to make a social media post in the morning and wait hours, if not days, for a response. A like is a like, right? It doesn’t matter if it comes now or in a few hours.
Taken together, all of these factors have resulted in creating a new form of human communication in which all real-life social interaction has been reduced to the absolute minimum. The sad part about all this is that the coronavirus pandemic will likely accelerate all these trends, further creating a sense of isolation from the world at large. Just think about it – we are now home-schooling children via Zoom instead of sending them to a classroom. And we are now interviewing for jobs over video instead of in-person because we’re all working remotely now. Over the next decade, the real social media paradox might become the following: How did social media platforms promising to make us all more social and more connected actually end up making us more alone and more isolated from the world?