Disconnect – How solitude can kill off Social Media

Heading into the city on January the 8th, you’ll still see the old Christmas lights from December 2017 suspended over The Strand, or maybe you’ll see some old, cheap lights in the windows of people’s flats, one or two every five minutes, who haven’t quite let go of the winter season yet. Those old flashes of love, slowly fading away, where the pulsating heartbeat is now a low hum. As 2018 rises from its slumber the internet seems to scream for a better world. But here on the rickety old busses of London Town, in the decrepit flats and apartments we cohabit, the stillness and imperfection of it all are mildly reassuring.

Something that’s hard to ignore this year is that discussions of New Years Resolutions have been oddly muted. Maybe that’s an absence of Facebook talking or more likely 2017’s rollercoaster ride into the unknown served as a screaming reminder that even the best of us can fail. It’s a trite tradition, one that we know even as we make our promises that we probably won’t keep them but the comfort of having something to aim for makes us happy. The idea of saying something positive, giving us a destination on the bleak horizon somehow makes us feel better – like when you attend an awful social event you didn’t want to go to where you smile as people talk at you loudly and the only thing pushing you through the sludge of a terrible party is the reminder that at home you have a loved one, a warm bed, and a pretty sweet box of mince pies left over from Christmas.

But what better time for a New Years Resolution than now? This world seems to have gotten bored of driving in a straight line and wants to be at one with the pavement in a spectacular global car crash. Now more than ever it seems ideal for people to have some hope to hold on to. Maybe more celebrities need to light the way for others. Perhaps a surge in political activity would do the trick. Perhaps it’s religion. Whether you believe in all of that or not, social media is a primary source of information for millions of our online alter-ego’s and if top platforms like Twitter and Facebook have taught us anything it’s that following, is sadly, what people do best.

At the risk of sounding like a hackneyed wise village elder from a formulaic Role Playing Game, there are two types of people in this world. Those of us who’ve been hurt and recovered just enough that you actually mean it when you smile and those of us who were hurt and were never really the same ever again. It’s the latter group you need to worry about. Those are the Bannons and the Trumps, the Martin Shkreli’s. Those are the multi-billion dollar execs whose goals and missions seem alien and cold. Those are the purveyors of nihilism and apathy – the young YouTubers with more money than sense and more spunk than grey matter. Those are people who have been endlessly hurt, impossibly so, by a cruel world that didn’t love them. And now they want to make you feel like they feel. By the end of all this, they want you to know their name.

In the social media bubble, things move at an alarming rate. Sometimes it’s impossible to think about last weeks blunders because the seeds of new ones have just bloomed this morning. Who will forget the Muslim Ban of 2017? Will we look back on that in 20 years with bemused fondness? Still stunned even back then that such a thing was possible? Or will the collective conscience of a guilty nation erase it from memory? Will we talk about the swirling cloud of suspicion over this current administration with the same hushed tones as the Watergate scandal? And will the internet even survive the digital tribe wars of the late 2010’s – which side were you on?

Being in the middle of all of this is like being in a blizzard – your senses are entirely overloaded. The windchill bites at your skin, the gradual build-up of snow causes your joints to feel like sludge and your damp socks turn your feet to stone. There’s so much to worry about that it’s often hard to see planet earth for the trees. As a society, we have to wonder how often do we stop at the bathroom mirror and take long, sobering look at ourselves – to question where this deathmatch of popularity algorithm’s is taking us? When those college kids at Evergreen tried to process their hurt and their pain, at what point did the mission objective become more about inflicting that pain on other people? At some point in the healing process, the anger at being second class citizens fused itself irrevocably with the blizzard of our online selves – when you have a lot of passion but nowhere positive for it to be discharged, your very real anger gets thrown into the meat grinder, and what comes out of the other side is a mutilated version of your hopes and dreams.

It’s probably too simple to say that without social media, events like Evergreen wouldn’t have happened. But when our culture values vanity and identity over principle, and morality, is it a surprise that the voiceless of our world imploded so corrosive? When you’ve got cojones for miles but your moral fibre went on the backburner you become some awful caricature. You push everyone who ever loved you away – you fail to recover from your pain, and as a result, you become another Kushner, another Trump. You want everyone to feel how you feel.

This evening in The Strand, the out of date Christmas lights will still be up. You’ll still see people’s old, cheap lights, still holding on to the dream. The shopkeeper won’t smile at you when you get an iced coffee but that’s just fine. And sitting on public transport is still a routinely awful exercise in stress and misery but one that offers ample opportunity to people watch and smile to yourself about the multitude of idiosyncracies that all human beings possess. When you’re not online there’s always the real world. Real people, governed by the universal language of etiquette and manners are infinitesimally easier to handle than an amorphous vague silhouette that we become when we step online.

In the real world we feel meaningless and interchangeable when plucked from a crowd of strangers, but for many of us, that’s a fantastic blessing. Maybe it’s okay to leave your ego at the door and slink into the crowd of a zebra crossing, or the low-key lighting of a coffee shop where no-one cares who you are. Social media is a poison that now houses itself far too deeply in our nervous system – getting rid of it now would be some strange form of digital Mutually Assured Destruction. But maybe it’s worth taking a step back from the virtual battlefields of Twitter to realize that reality is beautiful – the analogue and the dirt of good old planet earth is a tangible guardrail protecting us from a collective identity crisis. Out there, where it’s lonely and nothing happens to us, time has wearily dragged humanity into 2018. But as another controversy hits up our social media feeds, maybe solitude is exactly what we need?


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