There seems to be a hunger for what is real over the lite version of life that we are currently experiencing. For all their ease of convenience and their ability to connect us in so many ways, our devices and the online world they grant access to do not seem to truly feed our hunger for human contact.
The loneliness epidemic identified years before Covid was neither resolved nor alleviated now that lockdowns have passed. It was only magnified tenfold when people were denied the few rudimentary interactions they experienced on a regular basis. Offered instead a screen and a microphone and a shrug. The impersonal and remote new normal has set the standard for meetings and interactions behind the screen. Nothing seems to be able to take the place of real world connection but our online substitutes are akin to applying a salve, a temporary fix, while the problem worsens. In the absence of an actual solution, the salve is used again and again which may be the very reason for its existence. Something that provides just enough dosage to masquerade as a cure. An antidote that relieves pain but keeps its user ill in order to be consumed in perpetuity.
One has to wonder if opportunism has made some of the richest and most powerful companies knowingly and actively worsen our lives for their own benefit. Desperate users churning endless advertisement revenue as they return to the source for yet another fix.
Humans need connection and a sense of belonging. This fundamental requirement is the reason solitary confinement is considered a cruel form of punishment and the driving force behind our endless search for romance and friendship. Even those who have given up finding traditional methods of connection report that they spend enormous amounts of time online searching for a substitute. Entire online communities have sprung up of lonely people sharing their stories and temporary fixes as they seek comfort with one another. While they should have been remedied in the seeking alone, those online interactions with perfectly like minded people suffering from the same issues bring no lasting solace.
This type of fundamental connection is what is advertised by our digital tools today. They allow us to expand our borders far beyond physical limitations in order to connect with others throughout the world. As we have become accustomed to this new lifestyle we are also finding it no substitute for genuine connection.
Early social media saw people associate with only those they knew, sharing stories and opinions while helping to build advertising databases. It quickly devolved into a stage where people presented versions of themselves that do not exist. To the point where mocking unapologetically doctored photos became a passtime and their existence an accepted and well understood part of the online world. It devolved further still when it was discovered that outrage drove engagement far more effectively than joy ever could. The mutations continued as user numbers swelled and those at the helms of these platforms found themselves rich and influential in equally absurd measures.
Today, no one has any interest in the metaverse. The multi-billion dollar virtual reality world that allows people to socialize, work, and engage in leisure activities is essentially a barren waste. Even after years of pandemic lockdowns that left people stranded, there are no takers for the often touted next step in our digital lives. While it is possible that the metaverse is a long game it may turn out to be a simple failure as people opt for the real in the face of decades of hollow online interactions.
Pornography is free and offers almost anything one can be interested in yet societal incel issues have yet to resolve themselves. Users actually report worsening feelings and an even greater lack of connection over prolonged periods. This online substitute for intimacy, even with offerings meant to completely immerse the viewer such as “point of view” videos, virtual reality, and platforms that connect providers and consumers directly in a synthetic relationship, has not alleviated the symptoms of lonely people without a partner. These websites still find themselves among the most frequented on the internet. Users returning to the source for another fix.
The commonality here is that everything is free. Interestingly, they all seem to be doing their best to ensure you make use of them time and again. Whether it is by regular notifications, bonuses for frequent users, or special offers to entice former users to return, each platform needs users to return time and again. Those made for convenient, worldwide communication have a vested interest in you connecting with others as frequently as possible. One would imagine that how often you choose to use the service is not of interest to the company offering the service were they offering nothing but that ability to connect. Yet every social media platform will regularly email dormant users about posts their friends have made or lively ongoing discussions to draw them back in.
It should be well known at this point but it bears repeating. You are the product. In exchange for unlimited use of these platforms, they collect your data and in many cases have full ownership of all that you choose to post. Some even grant themselves access to your contact list and other information stored elsewhere in your devices by implanting the clause deep in their user agreements. Perhaps this is a fair exchange in order to connect quickly and without monetary cost to others around the world. To be able to share ideas with potentially millions of strangers. If this is where the transaction ended, one could argue that the trade was fair and mutually beneficial.
Gambling websites have a similar structure to grow and maintain a user base. After a period of inactivity, they will send incentives to get a former gambler back on to their platform. Sports betting websites offer credits that can be used toward free bets hoping that the action alone will trigger a gambler’s endorphin response and soon have them inputting their own funds again. Poker websites will simply place money into a former player’s account to have them return to the virtual tables. The insidious nature of these incentives require little explanation as to why they are predatory. At best, they are enticing people to gamble who otherwise were not risking their money. At worst, they are actively returning addicts to their addiction. Social media platforms make use of the same incentives promising the fundamentals of connection and human contact instead of mere monetary returns.
There is a limit to how much money one can lose. For all the harm that a gambling addict can endure, eventually they are discarded when they can offer no further value. There is no end to the need for human contact, to the desire to be part of a group and identify with others. To have a support structure of likeminded people who can offer advice and companionship. These things are fundamental to one’s well being and this is where our seemingly benevolent tech companies have chosen to strike.
There is also no end to how many times a user can return to this well. Not everyone plays cards or bets on horses or searches for sexually explicit content, but everyone needs connection. This may account for social media’s ability to overshadow almost everything found in the endless online world, even traditional vices and their accompanying addictions long ago accepted as constants.
The backlash in recent years has been both fierce and inevitable. Standard social media companies are finding both their users and ad revenues dwindling. The once unstoppable giants that became some of the most successful in the world are beginning to decay, their investors no longer convinced that their business models are infallible as the unquestionable damage done by modern social media and online life has become clear. Even those not directly impacted by algorithms pushing outrage-based content have begun to feel the discomfort associated with choosing a text conversation over a human interaction. These platforms have been a regular facet of our lives for many years at this point and they have lost their luster. The early appeal of an online world of endless possibilities has been lost now that it has been distilled to its base elements: convenient access to information and products, endless destructive vices, and unregulated companies invading your privacy and blatantly attempting to manipulate you for ad revenue.
These platforms continue to overlook a great deal of public discourse today but the sustained exodus of users and mounting evidence of malfeasance is undeniable.
Younger generations have begun leaving social media entirely or opting to sign up for apps that force them to post current, unaltered photos as opposed to the curated galleries we have become accustomed to. Many of these same young people have eschewed smartphones and the corresponding unreality they bring in favour of “dumb phones.” That is to say, the cell phones of yesteryear that offer only calls and rudimentary texting. Where the only option is to speak directly to another human being or to be truly alone without so much as a companion’s digital specter. The very same people who were born into a world filled with the unreal that was presented to them as truth are the ones doing their best to excrete it from their lives.
On the surface it seems as though those used to an online world would be the least likely to reject it, whether whole or in part. Yet they are the ones who have been mired in it for decades without a moment’s respite and this accounts for their spearheading the movement to search for what is real. No other generation has been subjected to so much online content and the myriad of conveniences that it provides. No other generation has seen so little human contact throughout their upbringing because of the ubiquitousness of the alternatives.
For some, the salve is all they have ever known and they are likewise among the first to recognize its dealer as the charlatan that he is.