Social Media or Social Isolation? Or is there a third way?

Posted on January 19, 2015 by


Photo: Not author Devon Bonady.

I remember the first time I felt a strong aversion to the computer communication hype. It was the mid-1990s and I had just arrived at college. Each and every student was required to have a computer. To me, this seemed completely unnecessary. To most everyone else, it seemed to be completely normal. I had never been a particular fan of computers, having drafted all of my work in high school on paper and note cards, avoiding the computer until the final product. I certainly did not want to be encumbered with my own computer. And these things were big—a huge monitor, a keyboard, and a computer box that I could hardly lift by myself.

Besides the uncomfortable feelings of owning a computer, I felt socially awkward; I was a teenager just starting out on my own, thousands of miles from home. On top of this, I now had to adjust to an entirely new form of communication: a campus-wide email system called Blitz, on which the college prided itself. Not only did every student have it installed on their computer, but each building had empty computers sitting out, ready for any of us to step right up and check our Blitzmail as often as possible. This was how students, professors, and administration communicated. For some, it became an obsession.

I was most flabbergasted by the realization that our phone never rang. Instead, my roommate and I would sit at opposite ends of the room, staring at screens, our heads turning to attention whenever we heard the beep sound that alerted us to a new message. It seemed to me that more laughter was directed at some words on the screen than at a joke between us. I was disappointed, missing phone calls and tea houses. And yet, as a young person desperately wanting to find friends and community, I joined into Blitzmail. I must admit it was nice to avoid some awkward teenage moments by sending email. Luckily, I soon found great friends who preferred, like me, to spend the weekend hiking and camping in the forest, telling stories and singing around a campfire, instead of staring at a screen.

Today, many of the behaviors I mentioned above may seem very familiar to Communities readers. Social media and other communication technologies are extremely popular with people of many ages throughout the world. I continue to feel conflicted about the choice to use communication technology, and at times I have chosen to avoid email and social media, and then again chosen to participate. It is often a choice between connection or isolation.

After graduation, I donated my computer to a community service project and was computer-free once again. I was happy to spend all of my time learning to farm, hiking in the forest, moving across the country, and getting to know people through conversation. In my youthful idealism, I imagined that I would never again choose to rely on a computer.

Thanks to intentional community, I sailed through the next five years with very little computer use. In the shared houses and communities in which I lived, in-person interpersonal communication was a high priority. We chose to live together for social interaction and we did not need to be in touch with people far away as much. I struggled to keep in touch with friends who stopped replying to my paper letters and chose to become e-pals instead. It was easier to knock on someone’s door than to get a hold of a long-distance friend. I certainly did not need computers and email to maintain a rich social life.

This began to change for me when, in the mid-2000s, I decided to start a business. Family, friends, and business coaches tried to convince me, a self-proclaimed Luddite of sorts, that I needed a laptop to succeed in my business. I hoped to avoid it, but I also wanted to succeed. Suddenly I was faced with the reality of marketing, which had begun its journey to email and websites. I argued with myself that I did not need a website for my local-only business, but a friend made me one anyhow, and so I posted only a logo and phone number. I thrived with word-of-mouth and in-person marketing. I appreciated the benefits I gained from minimal email and internet use for the five years I stayed in business, and was happy to have kept it to a minimum. That said, like Pandora’s box, once it’s opened, it’s hard to stay away from the email inbox, especially when people begin to expect it of you.

After these years in business, I made a shift to graduate school. That’s when computer technology and social media hit me hard. Ten years out of college and suddenly everyone did everything with computers, email, and the internet. I felt angry and old to observe college students watching YouTube videos during a class lecture. I felt conflicted about grading papers on the computer. By this point, everyone had a cell phone, except me. I recall a conversation I had with a student who told me, “If you don’t have a cell phone, you don’t have a social life.” College students rarely plan ahead; they simply call their friends and get together in the moment. If they can’t call you, you’re out. Luckily for me, I went home every evening to my husband and neighbors with whom I socialized when I wasn’t grading papers. Even so, the student’s comment struck me, and reminded me of the ways in which I had begun experiencing social isolation.

I did not have a cell phone, and I still don’t (these days, not having one seems like an act of rebellion). I chose not to engage in Facebook or any other social media. Call me old-fashioned but I really just wanted to walk to my neighbors’ house to chat or call my friend and invite her to dinner.

The choice between using social media or feeling social isolation has most recently become more poignant for me. My best friends and neighbors moved far away, and so now I cannot just stop by and visit them, but must call or email them. One way I can keep up with their busy lives is by reading their blog. As a mother of a young child, I do not spend as much time going to social events and large gatherings. Where word of mouth was once my main avenue for news about social events, I must now work harder to get my information directly from friends, or choose to subscribe to email lists and Facebook invitations.

My land-based community is sparsely populated right now and I have seriously considered using some social media again. As a mother, I have difficulty making phone calls while my son, attached to my hip, is wailing to hold the phone. I have discovered that modern mothers communicate via text, email, and Facebook on smart phones and when their kids are sleeping. Yet, I am still fighting this choice, choosing to avoid email and keep computers out of my daily life. Sometimes, it means that I lose out on connecting with others at a time when I am desperate for connection, feeling isolated as a new parent living in a rural place. That’s when I consider making a different choice. I will never get a cell phone, but what about doing Facebook occasionally to learn about events that I am invited to? I appreciate more opportunity to connect with others through email, but using a computer doesn’t fulfill my need for human connection. I want to lead a rich social life that eliminates the computer altogether. Living in community has been the best way for me to continuously choose a third option: not social media, not social isolation, but close-up personal community connection.

Often I pine for the old days and the old ways, and I’m not even 40 years old. I simply hold in-person connection moments as precious: the scent of my grandma’s perfume as she tells me stories of her life, the smell of warm bread at a birthday dinner, a funny story shared with a gleam in the eye, and the warmth of a good hug. These moments are what I live for. It may be true that, thanks to technology, we can now have it all if we choose—both hugs from our neighbors and live chats with people in Asia—but I want to focus on quality, not quantity. I’ll keep choosing in-person community first.

Devon Bonady lives with her family in a cabin in the treetops of the Oregon forest. She is thankful to Communities for sending her a magazine four times a year that she can sit and read on her couch.

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