Have you seen The Social Dilemma? I haven’t, yet. But a lot of people I know have, and as a result I’ve been having a lot of conversations about the state of our online existences / actual existences. The general consensus is that our algorithm-driven online lives, pushing us further down our individually curated rabbit holes, are spitting us out at increasing distances from others. Oftentimes those ‘others’ are strangers on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Other times they’re people we know. Or thought we knew.
This pandemic isn’t helping. While social distancing is keeping us safer from viral infection it’s driving our communication through a middle man (or men - Zuckerberg et. al) that doesn’t have our best interests at heart. The internet is feeling increasingly icky - but still, our reliance feels justified.
It all begs the question, how do we burst the bubble? And with that in mind, the suggestions below. Take them or leave them, but I hope to see you at the beach some time.
Take a break from social media
You already know this one. And you probably have reasons why you can’t delete your account. But you can go a day without. Or two days. Or two weeks. Try it for a weekend and if you must - do a photo dump at the very end. I promise no one will begrudge you the delay.
Join a book club
The problem with the internet now is that we’re all fed different information; it’s so easy to feel estranged, and misunderstood. With a book club, you may argue, but at least you’ll be arguing about the same material. Which is refreshingly old school. Also, the time you're reading is time you're not online - and if you're into external motivation, your club will keep you accountable.
Take yourself to the proverbial beach
Every year, at the end of winter, after six months of absorbing bikini content on Instagram and very little vitamin D, the idea of wearing swimwear outside is confronting. Then I get to the beach and am delighted to find that people have all kinds of bodies, and that each one is endearingly and humanly beautiful.
My point is, of course, that social media is not the real world. Whether it’s our skin texture or our opinions, social media flattens the complexities. Go outside - even if it’s only for a regulated hour - and you’ll find real people, just like yourself, in all their beautiful multiplicities.
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Consider talking to strangers
Zadie Smith said: “I think the hardest thing for anyone is accepting that other people are real as you are.”
Perhaps Smith’s wisdom is enhanced by her well-publicised decision to abstain from social media. But if that’s not an option, one way to begin transforming other people from the conceptual to the real is to actually talk to them (yes, at a 1.5 metre distance, or whatever is regulated in your area. And, absolutely, in a way and environment that feels safe). If it’s possible for you, get out of your usual neighbourhood. If not, supermarkets and relatively democratic spaces can provide a kind of cross section to take you out of your usual feedback loop. Maybe it’s the cashier, perhaps it’s the older guy with the sweet dog. But I’ve found this year that even a shared smile or a genuine, how are you?, is enough to instil lingering warmth and a feeling of shared humanity.
Get your news from the source
And also, multiple sources. The problem with getting news via social media is that it caters to your interests and biases, conscious or otherwise. That’s a problem when we’re only seeing a curated feedback loop of information. Consuming more holistically is by no means foolproof, but at least it could increase the breadth of information you’re getting. And could be helpful if you’re looking to discern where others are coming from.
Practice active listening
Do this by looking at your conversational partner - and focusing your attention, too. Try to practice non-judgement, and resist the urge to fill silences. When it’s your turn, try repeating what your partner says in your own words, and ask open questions. A full how-to here. The more you practice the more it flows. The aim is not 'to agree'. It is, literally, to listen. People will notice. You might even find it’s reciprocated.