Recently I was at a family gathering – me, my sister, my mother, my father, and my fifteen-year-old cousin. All of us have smartphones. We chatted and ate our lunch together, but eating and conversation was interspersed with checking Twitter, Facebook and emails. My father replied to a work question in between bites of trifle; my cousin insisted we pose for several Instagram selfies which she then painstakingly tagged with #Life #Love #Followback and a million other hashtags I’m too uncool to get. My mother giggled as her best friend shared photos from a night out on the sherry on Facebook. Meanwhile, an out and out Twitter addict, I kept up a running commentary of what was going on, from starter to digestifs, in the chance that anybody gave a toss (doubtful). There were several points where every single one of us was silent, immersed in our personalised digital worlds.
Don’t get me wrong; we all caught up and had a great old gossip. But would we have been more connected if we’d just switched off our phones? Would we have found out more about each other if we hadn’t just distractedly mumbled about work in between giggling at cat photos and banal updates about the lives of other people? Probably.
Before I got my smartphone – and I went smartphoneless until the age of almost 24 – I used to be disdainful of anyone who used their phone incessantly, to the point of snapping at a close friend who kept tip-tapping away on her Blackberry during a coffee-shop outing. I wanted to talk, but her BBM kept pinging, until I told her straight out that I thought she was being rude. But less than a year after getting my iPhone I’m now surgically attached to it, surreptitiously checking my networks any spare second I get.
Distraction is the big bugbear here. How can we form meaningful real-life connections with people if we’re constantly on the alert for other, potentially more exciting people and news? Do I really care that someone I went to school with at fifteen is having a great day at the seaside? So what if some dude I barely know has ‘liked’ a photo of me on Instagram? Is it worth interrupting a great conversation I’m having? Even if you’re implementing it in a more social way, it still adds an artificiality to everything. No night out is complete these days without smug Instagrams to show the world what an absolutely totally boss time you’re having. And I do this, all of this, constantly, despite my awareness and vague horror at being a Social Media Wanker. My first thought upon something cool happening is: “Gotta tweet this!” It would probably be my first thought upon being mugged. I’ve got it bad.
Another point to consider is oversharing. It’s nice to keep a little mystery, surely? There are so many people on Facebook whom I know far too much about. I really shouldn’t have to know the details of every feud and romantic entanglement that a random boy I went to primary school with is involved in. But it’s kind of like Jeremy Kyle – you can’t look away once it flips up on your newsfeed. Granted, it’s pretty funny to see people passive-aggressively venting about their ex-girlfriend or boss. However it doesn’t just reveal a lack of judgement on their part, but brings out the worst and most voyeuristic parts of us. If we saw someone having a total breakdown on the street, or a domestic dispute, we wouldn’t stand there giggling.
It’s not all negative, though. Ever since I was a socially maladjusted and misanthropic teen, even the early social networks helped me form friendships. One of my closest friends is someone from hundreds of miles away who I used to message on MySpace (the quaintness!) when I was in my teens. In the seven or eight years since we ‘met’ we’ve hung out in real life many times, shared hopes and dreams, and translated our endless MSN (again, adorable!) conversations into a real-life bond. I even got dumped via MySpace once. It was very sad. (I was kicked out from the boy’s Top Eight, the ranking system by which you arrange your friends in order of importance. Burn.)
Recently there was consternation in the office when I announced that I was going for a drink with someone from Twitter who I’d never met before. “Make sure she doesn’t steal your organs,” a colleague warned me darkly. But we’d tweeted for ages and seemed to have a lot in common – which we did, and we ended talking nonstop over beers for about four hours. Not a thieved kidney in sight. Before that, I’d bought a ticket for a festival from Twitter, ending up spending the weekend with a whole bunch of internet strangers who became friends. In fact, I’ve got more real-life friends that I’ve made from Twitter than I care to admit. It’s just a part of my day. I use it for work – tweeting from clients’ accounts, sharing links, monitoring media – and I use it as a quick way to keep in the loop, to build dialogue with both friends and business contacts. It can sometimes feel strange to end up at an event where you recognise many people from Twitter who you’ve never actually spoken to; but that doesn’t make using it as part of your social life any less valid. In our hectic day to day lives, little points of contact can brighten our day, and give us the connection to others that’s so vital, yet so easy to lose.
So, speaking as someone who’s reluctantly become an SM addict over time, I’d say that instead of damaging our social lives it’s just changing the way we connect. Some of these changes are even beautiful to see – connecting with strangers, pulling together to help via pleas on Twitter or Facebook, and breaking down some of the walls that keep us from others in day to day life. It’s important to remember that we’re still in the transitional phase of getting used to social media as a whole, still reconciling these new social techniques with the ‘old’ ways of keeping in contact. Maybe as time goes on we’ll figure out a way to get the most out of it and get to a place where we still pick up the phone for a good old natter, and manage to keep our paws off our touchscreens when it truly matters.
Sophie Mackintosh is an Account Executive and business blogger. You can help enable her social media addiction on @sophmackintosh