Image: from the series ‘teen gaze’ by Petra Collins. Image Source.
It was 2004, and my Nokia 6320 Flip Flap Folding mobile (in matte red, might I add) was something else. It told me the time; which was important considering how busy I was in between recess and lunch. Also, it was home to Snake – a game which, to this day, continues to trump the short-lived Apps I’ve loved and lost as a smart-phone owner.
Whilst my Nokia was something to brag about: a home of high-scores, parents on speed-dial, and hilariously pixelated photographs of my Maltese terrier, Flea – it didn’t alter how I communicated with those nearest and dearest. It, and social media alike, hadn’t developed enough to match the face-to-face interactions I had come to know.
However, our phones nowadays occupy a unique space in our lives unlike any other possession. We look far beyond their artificiality and consider them an extension of ourselves. We assess our friends, family and romantic pursuits (and, might I add, how we perceive their assessment of us) based on our interactions… or lack thereof. We generate seemingly ‘realistic’ narratives to interpret the online behaviour of others: applying meaning to ‘Read 7:16AM’ tags, ‘Seen: 12:57’ stamps, and forever notorious ‘…’ speech bubbles.
Before long, we have resigned to the fact that the reason Claire hasn’t responded to that invitation to that film screening tomorrow night is because she’s angry with you. Dwayne isn’t attracted to you anymore; that’s why he didn’t choose to ‘like’ your newest profile picture. Kate has most certainly died as she hasn’t been online for over ten hours now. And Sam was ‘active’ 13 minutes ago and is negligently ignoring your date request (which is stewing in his inbox as we speak) intentionally, as he can’t think of anything worse than joining you for a couple of pints at Dr. Morse, but doesn’t know how to say it without coming across as callous.
Social media ensures that we are inconspicuously ‘plugged in’ forever and always. We are contactable. Available. Entirely at hand. However, in that regard, we are too at another person’s disposal. I am not Madison to some, but rather another bot whose unfeigned requests for company, romance or work can be deemed just another one of Apple’s features as opposed to a genuine interaction.
Thus, when conversing is coupled with convenience – as is the case with social media – we are encouraged to take advantage of the platform upon which we communicate. We can avoid others with ease. For example, if someone I’d rather not spend time with invited me out for coffee face-to-face, I wouldn’t be able to exercise the privileges I have online. I couldn’t just ‘see’ them: disturbingly staring them down, eye-to-eye, until they eventually back away and leave me alone. Ironically, however – the rejection one would feel in that rather uncomfortable interaction is no less suppressed online.
As addressed in a study by Stephanie Tom Tong and Joseph B. Walther in 2010 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, there is a theory – ‘politeness theory’ which attempts to nut out why we react in arguably impolite ways when given an online platform to do so. Essentially, when somebody requests something of somebody else – be it a coffee date, for example – it out of the blue constitutes a face-threatening act (FTA). In other words, the ball – “Hey, want to get a coffee this week or something?” – has been thrown in somebody’s court – my inbox – without them potentially having agreed to there being a ball in the first place. All the while we are quite often taking into consideration the fact that we do not want to hurt anybody’s feelings, whilst still wanting to remain autonomous and “free from impediment” (Brown & Levison, 1987; Kline & Floyd, 1990). It’s like bumping into every man who has persisted to take you out – regardless of your relationship status, general wishes, or anything else for that matter – since 2013… every single day. But the street is your News Feed. And that person you’ve been trying to avoid is active at the same time as you. And thus, a ‘Seen: 2:45pm’ stamp is born.
I recall when my anxiety first became overwhelming. I was seventeen and head over heels in love with someone who had limited access to WiFi, a surfboard and a three-month trip planned backpacking throughout Indonesia. It was the year Facebook introduced the onerous ‘active’ function, from memory; so I was able to note how sporadic his Messenger essays were in comparison to his online status. In time, his apologies for not being able to contact me sooner lost meaning. Significantly. Rather than waiting for an update and showing a genuine interest in his voyage, I was tirelessly dedicating my time to detecting his online footprint. My want to uncover his deceit trumped my want to actually hear from him. Instead of listening intently to his tales of circumnavigating islands, sinking Bintang and getting sunburnt on sandy beaches, I concentrated only on the story his Facebook presence allowed me to spin.
I am no social media angel. I have received rather insistent requests on a handful of different platforms in my time and met them with radio silence for my own benefit. I have ‘seen’ people slide into my direct messages unashamedly, and have impolitely refused to engage. I am a sucker for convenience, dislike conflict, and hope that they will interpret my disregard for a lack of interest.
But I have also been on the other end, and have anxiously spun narratives trying to skirt around a ‘Seen: 12:57’ Messenger inscription. He was out with friends; and was so excited to see that I had messaged him, that he read it. Straight away. Or perhaps he is drafting a response as we speak; he just wants to put some time into it, that’s all. The way we interact online allows for social scripts to start and finish at a pace so rapid; we are anxiously clutching at straws for answers. Suddenly, we are people possessed: documenting when our pursuits were last active and wallowing in a deep pool of self-pity and angst if we aren’t met with an appropriate response.
I’m generally fairly skeptical of the sorts of statistics thrown around that frame social media as something villainous: a frightening, all-consuming influence on an impressionable youth. I believe there is great legitimacy in how we interact online. Our ability to express ideas, share new information, and converse on a platform as quick and accessible as Facebook, for example, is undeniably powerful.
According to a study titled ‘Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S young adults’ by B. Primack et al. to be published in Computers in Human Behaviour’s April 2017 volume, there is a lot of contention as to whether social media use exacerbates or reduces anxiety. In many ways, it is unifying. It allows its members to source out others who can provide online solidarity and a metaphoric shoulder to cry on. However, in the ways that I have mentioned, it can foster a great myriad of social misunderstandings online and other such negative interactions that provide substantial ingredients for a panic attack, an identity complex, or a cold hiatus from dating.
There are undeniable benefits embedded in online interactions. Dating applications work like catalogues. People, and what they are able to offer us – whether it be quick validation, therapeutic company after a break-up, or a shot at love, are literally at our fingertips. Like our iTunes collection, we can shuffle real-life-folk in a way that suits any given need we seem to have. But there’s no hierarchy that allows for us to sit comfortably at the top of the pyramid. We, too, are a bunch of pixels in an android. Our diversions are forever open for interpretation; as well as our daily movements. We are capable of negligently hurting people (and being hurt) in ways society hasn’t ever catered for before. And rejection hurts.
Socialising in general is fraught with interpersonal risks: something people who experience anxiety are able to understand. We consider just how many ways we fucked up any given interaction long after it occurred – twiddling our thumbs, and cursing ourselves. We anticipate how frightening it will be rocking up alone to a party. We fixate on how our behaviour will be transcribed.
Thus, rejection, and the fear of such, has occupied the lives of social beings for as long as we’ve inhabited the earth. It wasn’t birthed by social media’s ‘seen’, ‘read’ and ‘delivered’ services. However, what such functions allow are new platforms to assess our behaviour – and in turn – ourselves. They instil in us a handful of ways to reflect on our self-worth; dependant on the way in which others interact with us online. And most of all, they allow for new anxieties to be birthed. And whilst the anxiety is stemmed in something seemingly arbitrary to some, it feels no less different, tiring and overwhelming.
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