What was I doing in 2004? YouTube wouldn’t be created until 2005. Myspace had been created in 2003, but I wouldn’t make my own page until sometime around 2007. Facebook was created in 2004, but was only open to select college students until sometime in 2006—I didn’t end up creating my own account until 2009, anyways.
So what was I doing? It’s strange to imagine not opening my laptop every time I step into my room, not pulling out my smartphone every time I’m waiting in a line, and not feeling the short-lived excitement of realizing that a Facebook notification turns out to just be someone posting in the Brandeis class page. I was ten or eleven years old, so I was probably biking around with my good friends from the time. Jason, Jonathan, Devante, Asa—I could count them all on one hand.
As of writing this article I have 1052 friends on Facebook, but it only feels equally, if not less, reassuring than my four close childhood friends. I was initially surprised by this observation, because more is better, right? But the connections I’ve made and maintained over Facebook, and the persona I’ve created for myself feel artificial in comparison with real-life; I can’t even imagine how content I’d feel if I had 1052 friends in real life and four Facebook friends.
It’s always gratifying to see the red number on the corner of our screens—John liked my status, maybe my opinions are valid; Mark accepted my friend request, maybe I am popular; Max liked my profile picture, maybe I am attractive. But those feelings and gratifications are shallow and defined extrinsically. We get them through other people and consequently depend on those other people to feel that same way.
It’s true that I felt similarly gratified through my close childhood friends, but it wasn’t overburdening and over-stimulating. It was always nice to see my friends, and I appreciated the sense of belonging that came along with them, but I didn’t feel that presence literally every second of my life. I wasn’t reminded that those feelings were, or weren’t there, the way I am now as I check my phone in a line at the Hoot Market.
It’s very much like we’ve been conditioned. We see a red number and feel like we’re being noticed before we even check what that notification is about. We’re conditioned to feel accepted by these notifications and consequently at a loss without them. As I anxiously wait for the page to load—will I be accepted? If not, I feel restless, compelled to go and like someone else’s stuff, hoping they’ll reciprocate the “love” and fill the newfound void. But imagine how sad it would be if they’re liking my stuff for the same reason.
Aside from seemingly defining our self-worth, Facebook creates new personas for us. Individuals who I’ve known in person to be quiet and generally held back are often the most vocal on Facebook. It’s similar to the power that people find in anonymous online Internet forums, but they key difference is that Facebook associates a name with your words. Usually the will to make bold statements comes from not having your name associated with your words, but on Facebook, there’s actually a matter of pride with claiming those words.
Some people will chirp into huge debates with a safe (not new or interesting, but favorable) opinion to reap the benefits of social acceptance without the associated risks. Some people will disagree with just about anything to boast their intelligence and non-conformity. And some people actually provide thought-provoking, interesting, and unique opinions—though this last group has always seemed the minority in my experience. The large majority of users I’ve observed fall into the first two groups, and this is problematic because they don’t develop necessary social skills.
We live in a society where our natural human impulses are artificially stimulated and are consequently improperly developed. We feel conditioned belonging through our notifications. We feel contrived bravery through the constant presence of our peers. We belong online and are alone in person. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I can safely say that Googling it won’t help.