Love and Social Media

If Jonathan Franzen writes it, I want to read it. In a recent NYT essay he gives voice to what I’ve been thinking, that social media compromise intimacy. An excerpt:

. . . Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.

Usually, when I walk down the classroom hallways of my university, students line the walls, sitting or standing, eyes almost uniformly on their phones. And last week, at the GalPal’s end-of-the-year Spanish language program fiesta, I studied a fifty-something couple as they watched their granddaughter in a skit from adjacent tables. They watched her for a few seconds then quickly turned to their separate smart phones and never looked up for the remainder of the program. Only physically were they in same elementary school lunchroom as the rest of us.

No doubt, texting is usually easier than talking face-to-face, but is it healthier? I’m less convinced than Franzen that arms-length social media forms of interacting are necessarily worse than traditional face-to-face forms. I support the harshest possible penalties for high speed social media usage, but when it comes to stationary texting, talking, and Facebooking, I suspect Franzen is overstating the costs.

Is the obvious decline in eye contact and face-to-face conversation inevitably negative or just different? What indicators might help us answer that question?

If nothing else, at some point, young people will unplug at least long enough to satiate their built-in animal desire for physical intimacy. Unless of course, there’s a new app for that.

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