People Watching And Time Dilation: Part 2 – The Internet

Part 2 was supposed to be about applying the lessons of Part 1 to yourself. But…after 400 words or so, my heart wasn’t quite in it. So I’m going to make that part 3.

Instead let’s talk about an adjunct that Cigargoyle touched on, the complexity of people as related to online interactions.

Let’s start with a conversational misstep I took:

Back in the early 2000s when I was a blogger (err…well…when I was FIRST a blogger. Because I guess I’m full bore back there now) I was having a conversation with my Father.

I talked about the people I’d known through shared blog circles (again, back when that was something that made sense) and I said…”They’re great. But…it’s online. People online aren’t really people.”

“Jesus Mike.” My father said. He wasn’t exactly a denizen of the internet the way I’ve always been.

Now look. I get it. I know what he meant and he was right, so far as it went. But now, something close to 20 years later I hold to the underlying sentiment.

Interactions with people online are for the most part very one-dimensional. You can’t see anything aside from what they put forward, intentionally or accidentally. I can learn more about you from watching you walk across a room or talking with you for two or three minutes than I can in three months of talking to you online.

The kind of observational understanding I was talking about in the previous post is ABSOLUTELY UNAVAILABLE to us online, on social media, through our writings and pictures.

Now the twitch streaming and video conversation medium has mitigated a lot of that. But no where NEAR enough of it.

Social Media interaction has created this strange illusion where we think we’re talking with people, but we really aren’t. It’s like (well, not ‘like’, it’s not even a metaphor) trying to judge someone based on their online dating profile. You just can’t connect with people, not in any real way, through these mediums.

So we’re left with these strange one-dimensional pictures of each other and wonder why we still feel disconnected.

It’s because we are. These forms don’t take the place of real social interaction any more than aspartame, sucralose, or saccharine take the place of actual calories.

And like artificial sweeteners we deluded into thinking we have connections back and forth when we’re just, in a very real sense, playing a video game where we pretend to be interacting with other people.

It’s absolutely dangerous. Go back to the bar I talked about in my previous post. Watch how many people, especially people in the 30-50 range can NOT seem to get off their phones. They’re not watching anything or anyone. They’re just absorbed in being online more than they are in the real world. Oddly I’ve found that younger people, in their 20s roughly, have learned to navigate back and forth between their phones and real life, as if their phone was just another conversational participant. It’s interesting and frankly, heartening.

You have to go out. You have to go be a part of the world and make small talk with strangers, say hi to people you just pass on the street or in the gas station. It’s important.

You have to expose yourself to the Chaos Soup of humanity if you want anything to come of your life. No man is an island (hey, someone should write that down.) This weird belief that you’re being social when you’re hanging out on twitter, reddit, instagram, snapchat, and facebook all day is creating sociopaths of the lot of us and nothing good can come of it.

Now it’s not like you can put that genie back in the bottle. I used to try and take the neo-luddite position that social media was just toxic. But I’ve learned, like the 20somethings from a couple paragraphs ago, that there’s a balance to be struck with these new tools. (NOT that they’ve got such a great grasp of it. But it’s there.)

There are too many good people out there that I would have had no exposure to were it not for the nearly complete geographic irrelevance afforded by social media.

There are too many things I would never have learned without the firehose of twitter blasting in my face.

But even I (he says, vaunting himself perhaps overmuch, perhaps not) catch myself thinking that hanging out on twitter (my personal poison of choice) is real social interaction instead of just a series of video game style dopamine hits.

It is absolutely something from which we should escape.

I wasn’t sure how to close this part out, but let me suggest a couple tips and tricks.

Take a day (ideally a weekend, if you’re brave a week or a month) off of social media.

Now you’ll read that and flinch, almost certainly. That actually proves my point.

“But I don’t know anyone else.” Well, yeah even MORE to the point.

Go out. Go to a bookstore. Okay well a book store isn’t a great example. It’s like going to a library for conversation. Leave your phone at home or at least in the car, and take yourself out to get something to eat and NOT to a drive-through. Go sit someplace and eat something. Scary? Sure, if you’re not used to it. You know, like everything else. If you’re of age and not a tea-teetotaler, go sit at a bar, have a drink and bullshit with an available bartender. Talk with a stranger.

You’ve got to get away from the tailored, scripted (if ad hoc) interactions with avatars on the screen and deal with people.

Over time you’ll start seeing it all for what it is. And it gets easier. Like most things it’s an uphill climb at first. But over time, relatively short time really, you’ll get to the point where the “safety” of online interaction isn’t really worth it.

It’s scary. It’s not just that online interactions are shallow. It’s that we’ve grown accustomed to the safety of that insulative layer. That vulnerability involved in actually interacting with other people is vital. It’s what makes for a real interaction. While it’s nearly a tautology it bears saying that the degree to which you avoid exposing yourself to other people (heh, insert flasher joke here) is the degree to which you isolate yourself from humanity.

People need the genuine reinforcement and connections that can only come from that mutual vulnerability when we’re actually in a room, in a real conversation with each other.

It’s literally the only thing you can really do to snap out of that illusion and join the world where The Interesting People live.

The internet is a tool. You don’t have to be.