Social Media and the Illusion of Intimacy

I recently read this article about how the nude selfie and the culture of social media in general is changing our perception of what “normal” behavior is. We hear about nude photos being leaked and condescendingly roll our eyes.

Why did she take it?
Why did he share it?
Because we are like dogs.

In the 1890s Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that when he rang a bell to signal meal time to dogs, they would begin to salivate whether he brought food or not. There has since been ample research to confirm Pavlov’s findings and in more recent years, brain scan researchers have found that people have more brain activity anticipating a reward than receiving one. So when you hear the “ping” of your phone it sets off a dopamine loop in your brain. Dopamine is not simply a pleasure chemical but a wanting chemical. It propels you to do something. In this case, people send the naked picture or text message for the anticipation of the other person’s response.

All of this got me thinking about relationships in this digital era. It has become more and more normal to “meet” online and carry on relationships (romantic or platonic) wherein physical interaction is minimal or nonexistent. When you are holding your phone you are holding the idea of a person; an idea you probably helped construct. It’s hard to judge someone’s character online because you are only seeing that which they choose to show you and which you interpret with prejudice. A person may seem so perfect online but turn out to be nothing more than a very good salesman. That friend may seem like your kind, but she’s taken subtle cues from you and tailored her responses accordingly. It is a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. We walk around cloaked in the illusion of intimacy. And on some level we must realize it, but we want so badly to believe that it’s real, because even with all the followers and likes and Facebook friends we are somehow lonelier than ever.

Alternately, when you are talking to a person in real life you don’t have minutes to carefully choose your words. There are no filters. You can’t sit in silence for two hours ruminating over what to say next. In real life it’s impossible to control all the variables that you can online. Real life forces you to be present in a way that online interactions do not. (Though if you’ve ever seen two people on a date each gazing lovingly into their phones then you know that even real-life interactions are changing.) I’ve written about this in the past, but no matter how honest you feel you’re being online, the temptation to project what you think people want is often too great.

There really are no victims in this dilemma. No one’s forcing any of us to feed the machine, and yet we are, and in return it gives us a compulsion of the peripheral, creating a generation that is perpetually dissatisfied, easily bored, and emotionally detached. So what should we do? Social media is an integral part of our culture now and one that is not inherently bad, yet I am very uneasy about what the future will look like if we continue to prioritize instant, fleeting gratification over real life connections.