A “Ring” Theory of Social Media & Closeness
I had the pleasure of working at Facebook many years ago. It was a very exciting time, where smart engineers from around the world got a chance to work shoulder-to-shoulder on problems that impacted a large and growing fraction of the human population. A lot of the excitement was due to an earnest belief that in helping people share with each other we would help people feel better connected to each other and that this in turn would lead to a better world. Making the world open and connected was explicitly our goal, and it seemed great.
My focus for a chunk of my stay was on understanding how to get more people online. We did a lot of work to understand the true reasons why people don’t connect, which turned out in most places to be not as simple as either a lack of affordability or a lack of access. We made the world’s first map of the disconnected and explored a hilarious diversity of connectivity technologies from drones to lasers to satellites. It was heady stuff, and then I got poached by Google to help them build a new research and development team to also explore getting people online, a mission which I was determined to assist.
Looking back, we had these naive beliefs around a connected platform being good because they were in part true. Facebook let you take people who were otherwise going to be extremely distant acquaintances, like that cool person you sat next to on a plane flight 8 years ago, and made them a “good acquaintance? who knows what’s going on with your life at a superficial level. You can continue to interact with them when otherwise both of you would have moved on. These kinds of weak connections can prove very powerful in helping people to network and in getting a wide range of inputs, fun questions, recommendations, and experiences. It makes things feel “social”. It yields the effect of making one feel vaguely popular, to have a lot more good acquaintances than otherwise your life might afford.
But the inverse of this was (by us) less anticipated — that by having a uniform platform where sharing and interaction leveled the playing field between intimate friend and distant stranger, we would not only pull the stranger in closer, but we would push our friends away. Now instead of having a handful of intimate friends and a handful of acquaintances, we end up with no friends and an impossibly large army of acquaintances.
In having the medium be permanent instead of ephemeral we find ourselves self-censoring for the judges of future history. And with a much larger pool of people there were more things that might be misinterpreted or generate drama. So the things that we shared tended to be positive and glib. But meaningful human connection is built from vulnerable and authentic sharing. Such “self-disclosure” has been well-researched to promote bonding between individuals, even complete strangers. Online platforms that share speech with a large number of people and preserve it over a long time are not welcoming places for all but the boldest to share their darkest secrets and fears. The result: a feed full of people you vaguely know, mostly posting nice things but not vulnerable things, leaves us feeling all the less like we can share our own struggles — and that having such struggles makes us unusual amongst our peers. This leads to alienation and further lack of deep sharing.
There’s nothing deliberately malevolent about these sharing platforms; these are accidental artifacts of how they were built; whole movies have been filmed about the impacts of optimising for engagement, which I won’t rehash here. But it’s the component of willingness to share vulnerably that I chew on, because a lot of what’s going on is our own miscalibrated expectations about the degree to which others want to hear what’s going on in our lives. And the surprising, delightful truth is that people do want to hear. But what’s needed is reciprocity and exchange: if we bare ourselves but are met with a “like” or a “hug emoji” then this does not create intimacy.
We have seen an exploration of the ephemeral with SnapChat and disappearing messages on chat platforms. We’ve seen a shift from broadcast behaviors to 1:1 or smaller and contained groups. I would expect to see more of the same, with new platforms offering ways of exploring intimate sharing and encouraging mutual vulnerability and authenticity. And I think this is a fine goal for what comes next: not just finding new acquaintances or getting reminded of birthdays, but building deep and enduring new friendships.