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The easy answer—and the one which social media public relation teams promote—is that social media allows me to be connected with others. However, it is more nuanced than that. Yes, I do feel connected, but it is a shallow connectedness; I know that if I were to run into some of my Facebook friends in person, I would not feel comfortable going out of my way to say hello. We are connected via a social media platform—or multiple social media platforms—but we are not “friends,” no matter what Facebook wants us to believe.
Instagram and Twitter define us better: followers and the followed. Following someone does not necessarily imply an immediate intimacy as say a friendship would. There is still a sense of intimacy: the sharing of important events and the ability to peek into someone’s personal life. However, physically-speaking, one can follow another from a distance. In chase scenes in action movies, the criminal tries to evade the hero by running through crowds, and the hero must try to keep up by tracking snippets of the criminal’s profile as he or she dodges through the throngs of people. We, too, attempt to keep track of our followed by occasionally catching something they post or visiting their profiles, but we are no hero; it’s hard. We lose track and forget about people. We lose them.
But we were not even that close to begin with. How could we have expected to keep a good following distance? We just set our sights on someone new to follow, someone to be added to our growing list of “Following.”
We know who our real friends are: those we actively strive to have relationships with and the people we reach out to when we go home—that of our childhood—to catch up. But besides these, the others are essentially nobodies in our lives—people that have been reduced to a follower-following status, which in my perspective is lower on the social ladder than “acquaintance.” This claim purposefully excludes family because they come with the territory; we have to follow weird Aunt Ruth of annoying cousin James. However, we share details with these people that we have drifted away from or have never actually met but are connected with through some organization or institution. Though, as I said before, it would be a person from this list that I would not necessarily feel inclined to say hi to if I were to bump into him or her at the grocery store. We feel awkward and weird about approaching them, but it is because—deep down—we know that we do not actually know them. We are following and being followed, but never through social media do we ever completely catch up. We do the catching up not through Facebook and Instagram, but at coffee shops and on phone calls. Facebook and Instagram now have calling capabilities as part of their apps, but it would still be possible to do so without going through the platforms—it is not something Facebook and Instagram specific. But still, for the most part, we follow blindly and without a real bond with our targets.
I give in and say that I do feel connected, but it’s perhaps better to say that it’s an isolated connectedness—one in which we’re all alone together.
Kaelin Mendez is a student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California double-majoring in Journalism and Psychology. Kaelin is in in Jon Pfeiffer’s media law class. The class covers social media and First Amendment issues. Kaelin wrote the above essay in response to the following question: Does social media make you feel more connected or more isolated?
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