Social Media Cannot Bear the Weight of Friendship

While we long for intimacy, we are terrified at the prospect of being deeply known.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about what social media was originally designed to accomplish, I think of the earliest days of Facebook connecting people to old high school friends, former lovers, or distant family members. The purpose of social media, it seemed at least for a little while, was to connect people (often who already knew each other) for the purpose of maintaining friendship through internet communication.

Social Media Is More About Entertainment Than Socialization

Social media served as a platform for people to connect on a personal level. It was meant to be, or so it felt, a two-way medium, where people connected to each other, rather than a one-way medium in which people performed for crowds of people.

Instead, what it feels like we have today is a form of communication through which we are constantly performing either for audiences of strangers or individual acquaintances.

Comedian Bo Burnham said in his new Netflix special Inside, “The non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.” This sounds like a joke until you realize it isn’t. It is tempting to believe that “the internet isn’t real life,” but the reality is that for vast swaths of people the internet is the realest part of life and offline life is often seen simply as a store of natural resources from which we may mine content for our real, online performance-lives.

It’s like what Postman wrote back in 1985, “Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other.”

This is truer today in 2021 than it was in 1985.

Social Media Isn’t Made for Intimacy

In his book A Time to Build, Yuval Levin writes concerning social media (bolded parts by me, for emphasis):

As social media consists of a set of platforms, it is not well suited for intimacy of any sort. This may seem a strange observation. After all, in some respects the online world seems overflowing with intimacy: everyone shares very personal information—from pictures of their children to provocative opinions and jokes and complaints to extremely private dating profiles and intimate photos and messages….

The realm of social media often effectively functions as an arena for saying private things in public, and thereby confounding the public and the private in a way that renders social interaction deeply uneasy and unsatisfying. Some people, especially those who have grown up in the digital era, are sufficiently accustomed to this confusion that they do not even recognize it. They behave online as they might among their closest friends, even if a much broader circle of people can see them.

In case you’re confused, intimacy is about much more than romance. Intimacy is really just closeness. Levin puts his finger on why it seems like such an outlandish idea that social media isn’t good for friendship—it’s because it isn’t good for intimacy, and intimacy is vital to friendship.

Social media is not designed for intimacy—it’s designed for ephemerality, and ephemerality is the enemy of intimacy. Like I wrote last Monday, some matters are too important, too weighty, for social media…and deep friendship is one of those things!

The Intimacy Gap and Our Fear of Being Known

Much of our current, ever-growing frustration with social media is rooted in our longing for intimacy and our inability to find that intimacy online. Social media is simply not built to bear the burden that intimacy requires. When we lack intimacy, often without realizing it, we try to fill the intimacy hole in our hearts with a high quantity of surface-level relationships on social media and get discouraged when our pile of birthday wishes and Instagram likes don’t fill the hole.

Does an excessive interest in social media prohibit the formation of healthy offline relationships? Do we pursue online social interactions because we’re afraid of being deeply known? Is it some combination of both?

I wonder if we pursue relationships online and settle for less-than-ideal, screen-mediated relationships because, while we long for intimacy, we are terrified at the prospect of being deeply known. I think we may be willing to engage a quixotic pursuit of intimacy online because it’s better than the terrifying alternative of the vulnerability that accompanies embodied friendships.

Social media was, theoretically, built to connect us with one another. It may be able to connect us with one another, but despite of the illusions of intimacy constructed by our constant oversharing every bit of our lives, social media struggles to bear the weight of friendship without serious investment offline in the presence of one another.