I increasingly raise an eyebrow at social media relationships, especially in the group context. I’m a member of a number of Facebook groups, for example, where people go for advice and emotional and spiritual support. People vent and ask for prayers. People share struggles and request guidance. But I hesitate to respond.
Facebook can never replace face-to-face relationships, because Facebook can only offer us words. And words cannot always be trusted. We all unwittingly lie, most of all about ourselves. And Facebook enables these lies, because our Facebook “friends” cannot tell us when our words don’t match up with our faces, histories, or habits. Only the friends of my flesh-and-blood daily life can tell me when my words are skewed, based on their experiences of me. Only these sorts of friends can tell us when our words don’t give an accurate accounting of our lives. But on Facebook, we only have words.
Words are fickle things, and to believe we can advise others solely on the words they use about themselves misses the integral mystery of the human person. Our words often give flawed accountings of ourselves. We all dwell in some form of self-delusion. And the people most deluded will always be the people most likely to rely on social media for support, because social media can never really tell them that the words they use about themselves are wrong. Our “friends” on social media lack the contexts for knowing whether we are mistaken about ourselves. They don’t see the selves that exist outside of our words.
Facebook functions as a world of curated self-perceptions. Because of this, I worry that forums like Facebook groups will exacerbate the tendencies and dynamics that foster mental illness. Facebook can foster psychosis, because in many ways it is a form of psychosis.
These forums certainly enable co-dependent relationships. But the co-dependency of Facebook is more insidious than flesh-and-blood co-dependency. Unlike the victims of real-life co-dependency, members of social media forums will be unable to break a co-dependent relationship, because the relationship is in many ways not really with specific persons, but with a group or forum generally. The co-dependency falls on a group or forum. And as one member of a group backs away from a co-dependent person, another member will always be available to step in.
Facebook groups can also foster manipulative tendencies. When we criticize the words that people use in such groups, they can counter by saying, “You don’t really know me” or “You don’t really understand.” And they are right. But, of course, one might respond to this by saying, “Then why are you asking for advice here? Why would you ask me something, and then get mad that I respond with what little I know about you?”
The advisee should certainly be treated with compassion. But the response of “you don’t really know me” does more than call for compassion. It often also manipulatively conditions responders by suggesting what sorts of responses will be acceptable to the questioner. Manipulators condition these groups to give them the sort of responses that they want, in the manner they wish.
What these persons usually want is a narrowed dialogue. In asking someone whether they should do A or B, respondents might be chastised for recommending C, because the questioner insists that respondents enter into his own binary visions of reality. He establishes his own rules of “empathy” and engagement. Such persons narrow the scope of interpersonal exchange in order to fit within what they perceive to be the acceptable bounds of reality. Then, in the group context, moderators must respond by either cutting off certain conversations or increasing the number of rules for engagement.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of these moderators. They’re not really to blame. It’s the forum that necessitates this. It demands these sorts of limitations simply by virtue of the sort of thing it is. Social media has its own language and vocabulary, which demands we use specific words acceptable to everyone engaging in the conversation. So social media takes on the dialect of the complainers and counter-complainers, and rather than expanding one’s language and perspectives, social media engagement often has opposite effect. The only way to resist this is to break out of it.
In Wednesday’s post, I will continue by discussing the limitations of “safe spaces” on social media.
On a related note, see this article on a former Facebook VP expressing “tremendous guilt” over social media damaging society by establishing “dopamine-driven feedback loops” for its users.
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