Online platforms strip away the physical interactions humans depend on
This week I interviewed Mary Harrington, a columnist on these pages who is also a trained psychotherapist. We discussed the role of social media in driving division, and she framed the problem in a way that illuminated a tired old trope. She thinks that behind these warring factions online there is:
There are often substantive legal and conceptual issues underneath our most painful debates and focusing on the relational dynamics, tone and existential tenor can be dismissed as trivial or avoiding the issues. It isn’t. Social media is, for better or worse, now the main site of our collective reasoning. It is where we narrate ourselves to ourselves, as individuals and collectively. It shapes how we see our own identity and that of others, and the health or otherwise of those conversations has an enormous impact on whether we are able to resolve, or even live with, our differences.
Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” — a still relevant push-back at those who claim technologies (especially information technologies) are neutral. Healthy and effective communication ideally involves body language, an ear for tone, space for nuance and some understanding of where the other party is coming from. Social media platforms strip all of those things out, leaving us like a piano player trying to convey a symphony with only one note.
When you add the emotional freighting — we are not just trying to deliver a message but rather, we want to be seen and understood — the difficulties become clear. I found Mary’s articulation of the painful frustration at thwarted attempts at personal encounter illuminating, and deeply recognisable.
Psychotherapy, religion and neuro-science all agree that humans are social creatures to our core and that the health of our connection with each other (and for people of faith, the divine) is key to our flourishing. This deep need for connection and recognition used to be more easily met in offline sets of relationships — unions, political parties, voluntary groups, extended families, villages, sports clubs, and religious practice. All of these have declined, leaving us with an epidemic of loneliness, especially among the young.
It is a tragedy that these platforms — so useful in many ways — are at the same time being asked to bear more of the weight of our desire for recognition and connection, while being radically less suited to it. We are looking for what we need in the wrong places.