Does social media really give us the meaningful connections we want?

In my experience, social media helps keep me connected to my communities, but social media itself is not my community.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the things in between connect us to the world.  We can communicate with anyone, anywhere, any time we feel like it. We can interview for a job from our kitchens. We can end a call as we buckle up for take off and reconnect the call through a wifi connection tens of thousands of feet in the air. We’re connected.

But what kind of connection is it?

There’s this idea that, with social media, we have created a community. In my experience, social media helps keep me connected to my communities, but social media itself is not my community.

Friends, or “friends”?

I’ve been on Facebook almost since it started. In 2005 one of my roommates said, “Look at this. I just found this thing called ‘Facebook.'” We were all suspicious — but also intrigued.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Back then, we had only one desktop computer in the house. It was the only computer connected to the dial-up Internet. (Wi-fi? What’s that?)

Soon we were all signed on, and we started connecting with our friends we had just graduated from college with. One friend even connected with a man she didn’t know but had seen on campus. They began a relationship and got married. They’re still going strong 10 years later.

So many random social media platforms have phased in and out of vogue. Years and years after I abandoned it, my MySpace profile is just floating out somewhere in the ether. Same with Periscope. Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Or Yahoo chat rooms? Oh, the inappropriate pre-sexting that happened there. What about Ancestry DNA? No? Is it just me who got a message from a distant unknown cousin who thinks I’m hot?

And now Facebook has become so big, it kind of isn’t containable. You can find people you don’t know pretty easily and be “friends.” How about those randoms you’ve never met, but you have a few mutual friends, so … maybe? Some of us have fan pages, or separate accounts for business and our actual friends — mostly to avoid getting fired, or to appear suitable for the next job. There are so many people just sitting in friend request purgatory, waiting for you to confirm and validate their worthiness.

I see you, seeing me avoid virtual eye contact with you.

Many of us have hundreds of so-called friends or followers, but how many of them do we actually spend time with? And how often? I have to have a personal connection with someone to consider them part of my community.

Among my 1,000-plus friends and hundreds of followers, there are really about three to five close or “best” friends, 50 people I hang out with over the course of a year, and five I would make plans to travel far and wide to see. I’m connected to “everyone,” but my community is actually very small.

One exception

There is exactly one person I have ever met online who I have not met in person who I would call a friend. In the 10 years we’ve known each other, she has been like a modern-day pen pal who actually stayed connected after the mandatory first letters.

When Facebook was a little less creepy, when it was primarily for students, and it was becoming more open to allow people to search for friends who weren’t from their school, someone else named Cecily searched her first name. There were about five or six of us who became connected online solely because of our first names.  (This could have never worked for a Megan or a Sara or a Tiffany. Cecily is not an unknown name, but it is not a common one, either.)

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Since the early days of “Hey, all of us Cecilys should be friends,” I’ve remained connected to a couple of them. For some reason, just this one feels like an actual friend — not to the point where I would seek life advice from her, but she’s certainly someone I would invite to a Christmas party.

Where real communities are made

We can divide our social media friends into all kinds of groups to control who we see and who sees us. Because I am a comedian, I have connected with many people I do not love — or even know, for that matter.  I’m in public, private, and secret groups built around topics ranging from comedy to hair to writing to veganism to family reunions, and it goes on and on.

But just thinking about all of those groups, and all of the ways I am supposedly connected, it makes me feel oddly disconnected. I’m still sitting at the lunch table of misfits.  Sometimes we try to be cool enough to sit with the duck-face selfies doing it for the Instagram-famous table. Other times, wearing a retainer and no makeup is just fine over here in the corner.

Wait — am I in high school? Is the world really just one big high school? Noooo!

Social media can be fun. I can get a glimpse into someone’s life, and it doesn’t mean I have a secret longing to one day randomly find myself somewhere in Alabama to actually meet up in person. (I’ve been to Alabama. It’s cool. But I’m not going anytime soon just for fun.) I hope to not take a long, full-day’s drive back to the town where I graduated from college. Instead, I can just hop online and see an outline of who my “friends” are now.

There is a group of people I meet up with just about every week. Generally we talk about our shared religious views. I’ve been connecting with this group on the same night for over three years. We have vacationed together as a group many times, gone out for drinks and pizza, and seen professional theater together.

That’s a community to me.

I’m also Facebook friends with all of these people I see regularly. It allows me to catch up. One couple got engaged and posted their experience online before we would see each other again. That’s information I’d like to know and not necessarily wait for.

I do hope that even if social media goes up in flames I’ll still have people I can connect with in real life. I hope that I can have a community of people who, whether we post silly GIFs on each other’s feeds or not, we can call on each other if we need each other. Although my community does exist online, I hope that it won’t be fully contained there. Let’s go for a walk together sometime.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal