Absence, the Facebook Façade, and Avoidance of Vulnerability

Robotics and connectivity call each other up in tentative symbiosis. The mobile device signals we receive tell us we’re together. Networked, we’re supposed to feel like we’re together but I have begun to wonder if our expectations of each other are so lessened that we can feel utterly alone (Summers, 2013). And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed. In this new regime, a train station, café, or park is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection. People come together but do not speak to each other. Why is this? It is those on their mobile device who mark themselves as absent. Sometimes people signal their departure by putting a phone to their ear. But it also happens in subtle ways – a glance down at a mobile device during dinner or a meeting.  A place used to comprise a physical place and the people within it. What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent? Once we remove ourselves from the flow of physical, messy, untidy life, we become less willing to get out there and take a chance. When media is always there, waiting to be wanted, people lose a sense of choosing to communicate. How often do people now break up over text, rather than in person? And how many intimate “conversations” now take place over email, rather than in person? Research portrays Americans as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We work more hours than ever before and many have left behind the religious and civic organizations that once bound us together. (Turkle, 2014)

While for some, social networking and dating service websites have become a means to an end, for many people it has become the PRIMARY means for social interaction. Approximately 100 million people use Facebook in the US (Turkle, 2011). The average user has 130 “friends,” sends out 8 requests each month for new friends, visits the site 40 times every month for an average of 23 minutes per visit, and creates 90 pieces of content per month. As a whole, 30 billion pieces of content are shared every month leading to 770 billion page views in a typical month. In a few years, online communication has gone from a casual way of conversing to a primary method of social contact and interaction. “Being connected” used to mean an emotional bond but now refers to available communication technology. Turkle’s research found that the average adolescent fretted over their profile on Facebook, wanting to present an acceptable façade. Ages 13 to 18 were once the years of experimenting with identifications, they are now the years of profile writing, which Summers argues, is façade creating. These well-constructed facades would not be such a cause of concern if they were seen as acting. But these online personas are taken seriously.

Another thing I’ve found myself reflecting upon is that today’s instant cyberspace connections provide a ready defense against emotional vulnerability. One of the most dramatic findings is that this protectiveness has resulted in the inability to converse among many of today’s youth (Turkle, 2011). High school sophomore subjects readily admitted they avoid direct human interaction through the safety of the Internet.  For instance, texting is preferred because it allows greater control over the communication and less opportunity to feel rejected. Research findings show young people are using the Internet to stay away from the anxieties and vulnerabilities of direct emotional encounter. On the Internet one can ask someone for a date or break off a relationship without having to look into the eyes of the other or even hear their response. Internet communication has become a readily available means for maintaining the aloof, defensive stance adopted by many adolescents to defend against the vulnerability of emotional contact with others. Cyberspace communications tend to be brief, superficial, and do not require spontaneous responses. As a result, it provides a ready means to circumvent the anxieties embedded in interaction. One does not have to confront the spontaneous feelings of either intimacy or conflict when hiding behind the barrier of Internet space.