I’m not alone in this: reflections on social media and digital connection

Social media, digital communication channels, and cell phones often get accused of alienating people, enabling bullies, and breaking down the human ties which are the foundation of society.

Bullshit. Personally, I am far happier on a day-to-day basis thanks to these technological tools. They have added considerable love, meaning, joy, and value to my life. With their help, I’ve been able to offer nurturing and support to far more people I care about than ever would have been possible otherwise.

So I wasn’t surprised when a recent Pew study found that 85% of adult who use social networking sites say that people are mostly kind. Also, 68% reported they’d had a experience on social media that made them feel good about themselves, and 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person.

I know I’m not alone in this…

OK, yes: Sometimes Twitter, e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, text messages, and Facebook can be annoying and overwhelming. Sometimes they really piss me off, or bring me heartache. Sometimes I ignore them for days at a time, especially when I’m chilling out at my mountain cabin. But for the most part, they have connected me more closely to the people I love, and to several new communities. They’ve sparked and fostered new friendships, and have brought many amazing people into my world.

These tools have helped me virtually eliminate loneliness from my life. And I know what it feels like to feel acutely lonely.

In 1995, when I relocated from the east coast to Boulder, Colorado, I only knew one person there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that town or job, so I moved out by myself for a trial run. My then-boyfriend stayed behind in NJ, and I rented a month-to-month furnished apartment. My job quickly drove me crazy, but I fell in love with the town.

The hard part was: While I was there alone, I was starved for regular friendly conversation and connection.

I didn’t immediately strike up any friendships with my new coworkers. I saw my one local friend only rarely. I’d go to bars, coffeeshops, the Pearl St. Mall, and music venues and strike up conversations with strangers — but nothing turned into more than a brief polite exchange of pleasantries.

Yes, I’d talk on the phone to my boyfriend most days, and I did many lovely solo hikes in the Flatirons on the edge of town.

But the vast majority of those five months before my boyfriend joined me in Colorado, I felt deeply, achingly lonely. I actually got depressed. I cried a lot, and felt fragile much of the time. Moving across the country was disorienting enough, but that loneliness was torture for me. Even though I was growing to love Boulder, even though I had lots of cool stuff to do and books to read, even though I never wanted to return to the east coast — not having people to talk to for such a long stretch was unexpectedly stressful.

I didn’t realize how social a person I am until conversation and connection became scarce luxuries.

To be honest, I was motivated to start the e-mail discussion group for the Society of Environmental Journalists during those months mostly because I needed to experience some kind of regular conversation and connection to community. (17 years later, that list is still going strong.) My dialup internet connection became an emotional lifeline.

This was before cell phones became popular — so when I’d go out to places, try to socialize, and usually not succeed, I’d end up feeling more isolated than ever. Often, I’d give up early and flee to my hotel-like apartment. I couldn’t wait to call someone who knew me. My long distance bills were staggering.

As the web became more popular and robust, online forums and sites like LiveJournal provided me with new ways to connect with new communities.

It took me years to build a strong network of friends in Colorado. And now that I’ve been in the Bay Area for three years, I still connect every day with many of my Colorado friends — mainly via social media and e-mail. I know what’s going on in their lives, I know what makes them laugh or grumble, I see their surroundings, I hear their observations and questions. I watch their kids grow up.

And in late 2008 my marriage was ending, I was feeling broken and I really needed to be somewhere else for at least a few months. So one evening while at The Cup in Boulder, I posted a few tweets seeking suggestions for where I could go. That sparked to an immediate response from my friend Susan Mernit, who said “Come to Oakland! I have a room you can stay in!”

That’s how I ended up in the Bay Area — not just for a few troubled months, but for a few wonderful years. Those tweets were the key to rebuilding my life, on my terms.

I also have a very large network of professional colleagues in media and technology, many of whom have become friends to varying degrees. Social media and digital communication have allowed me to foster those connections and make them meaningful and mutually rewarding. I get the opportunity to help and support people every day, and I get to ask for help and support anytime I need it. And I get to laugh. A lot.

And when I’m feeling grumpy or depressed, a usually reliable cure is to hop on social media, see what the people I’m connected with there are saying, and respond to them. It usually doesn’t take long for me to get out of my own head and shake my mood, and then get on with my day refreshed — or sometimes even inspired.

I also get value from people who I don’t know personally. From actor/director George Takei’s pithy, incisive Facebook humor, to people who post to the Salvador Dali tag and more, these missives offer an element of connection that goes beyond mere broadcasting.

Some of the people I’m closest to, like my boyfriend of nearly three years, are an intrinsic part of my ambient digital environment. I leave instant messenger up when I’m online, and we converse off and on throughout the day — in short bursts, no pressure to interrupt our work or commandeer each other’s attention. We each get to do what we need to do, while connecting companionably. It feels good. It feels human. It’s real. And it’s manageable.

Mobile technology has added a new dimension to my sense of personal connection — mostly by sharing text and photo messages with people I know, but also through social media.

For instance, I love to explore my surroundings, and I often take my Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare and Tumblr connections along with me on photo walks (all at the same time, via PicPlz). Last weekend I went for a lovely walk up and down the staircases of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. And while I’m out on the walk, people from around the country and sometimes even the world chime in with appreciation, questions, and snark — which all makes it more fun for me.

And when I’m having a hard time, like when I recently had a major disappointment in love (not with my longtime boyfriend, we’re solid; but another friend-turned-lover broke my heart pretty badly last month — yes, I’m poly, deal with it) my friends were really there for me, every day, both in person and via private digital communications.

On this front I had an unexpected happy surprise: I’ve developed a much deeper and mutually rewarding friendship with someone who before was only a casual friend, thanks to private conversations we had about my breakup via Facebook Messenger. I never liked Facebook Messenger before, but this time that particular channel made a huge difference in how I recovered from a wrenching experience. And it also helped my friend heal more from her own breakup, too.

Meanwhile, I found it helpful to mostly disconnect on social media from my fickle former lover. Right after I had to break up with him, seeing him keep popping up casually in my ambient daily digital environment was painful. I hope that eventually he and I may re-establish some sort of friendship — and if so I would re-establish those social media connections. But this breakup experience helped crystallize the key role that digital communication and social media play in my relationships and emotional life. There are definitely tradeoffs. Sometimes you must unfriend.

Currently I’m planning another relocation. I’ve been in the Bay Area for three years, and while I’ve enjoyed it, this just isn’t home to me. So I’ll be moving to another state in spring. Most likely I’ll return to Colorado, which still feels like home — but so many people have told me that Portland would suit me well, I’m traveling there in March to give it a closer look.

Originally I discounted Portland, since I know just a few people there and still have vivid bad memories of moving to a new place and having to start a social network completely from scratch. But today, anywhere I’d move to, the people I care about and get value from would all be coming along with me. They’ll even be right in the palm of my hand. Also, it’s much easier to find and converse with people in other places, which makes it easier to construct new real-world social networks when you move. I’ve gotta say, this really changes the emotional calculus of a major geographical shift.

I realize that for some people, social media and digital communications offer little value or a mostly negative experience. You can leave yourself open to cutting attacks that leave you reeling, sometimes in public. Misunderstandings, drivel, and carelessness abound. Boundaries get transgressed, and feelings get hurt. I’ve experienced all of these, from both sides.

I’ve decided to just roll with it, since the value of these connections outweigh the inevitable bumps, missteps, and occasional overload. And when I need to disconnect, I can — and that’s easy. There’s this thing called the off switch…

My life is better, and my world is richer, on a very human level, thanks to digital technology. Without these tools I couldn’t do the work I do, I probably wouldn’t have been able to be successfully self-employed for nearly 15 years, and I wouldn’t have the breadth and depth of personal connections that I now consider one of the greatest treasures in my life.

And I know I’m not alone in this.

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