Social Media's false promise to Automate your relationships
And why it's impossible for them to follow through.
“You do not need a certain number of friends, just a number of friends you can be certain of”
― Itzik Amiel
Do you know that one friend you have on social media who’s just a little bit… annoying? In real life they’re great, but online maybe they do something like post too many selfies, or only post extremely high-intensity political content, or flood your feed with pictures of every vacation they’re on (how are they always on vacation?). Are you ever tempted to click “unfriend”? But something stops you- …you like this person. You don’t want to end the friendship over something so trivial. It would make the other person feel bad to lose you a follower. But the issue persists- seeing their content is beginning to affect your mental health.
The sociological trick that social media is pulling here, is that it strongly implies that if you’re not friends with/following/subscribed to this person, then you aren’t truly friends in real life.
But the truth is, for many years before social media and the internet, people built and maintained friendships just fine. Better even, in many ways! See- friendship is not binary. It is not a “yes” or “no” question. There exist infinite possibilities between “Not friend” and “BFF5evr”. We have friends we see every day- but maybe just casually like at work. We have friends we hang out with every weekend that we still get into arguments with frequently. We have best friends, acquaintances, old high school besties that we keep in touch with (but maybe not as much as we used to), friends that we only see once a year (or less!) but talk on the phone with constantly and we wish we could see more often.
Relationships exist on a spectrum. A spectrum of desire, that is- “how much do I want to be with this person”, which translates into a spectrum of work; How much work are you going to put into being close to this person? Because that’s what relationships really are at their core. Relationships don’t require work, they are work. Caring doesn’t take effort, it is effort. The closeness of a friend or family member is directly correlated with the amount of work both parties are putting into it.
To put it another way, relationships aren’t just things that are, they’re things we do. You wouldn’t call someone a friend if you’d never met them (well, you might. “Parasocial relationships” are of growing concern in the internet-space). Point is- if you want someone in your life in some capacity, you find a way to make it happen. Whether it’s flying home for Christmas, or staying up until one o’clock AM to Zoom call with your friend in Australia. Either the work is put in, or the relationship doesn’t work. Well not only that- it doesn’t well, exist.
Now- what social media (Specifically, Facebook & co, as opposed to the “connect with strangers” style of Twitter or Reddit) attempts to do is to convince you that it can free up time by automating away all the heavy lifting from relationships by turning your personal relationships into another daily news feed. Don’t have time to call your Aunt? Don’t worry- she’s been posting to Facebook. Just check there! How convenient! Doesn’t it feel like you’re in some kind of relationship with this person? All the guilt you may have felt by putting off that call is gone. And with minimal effort. You CAN have your cake and eat it too!
Social media wants to convince you that you can be “full” friends with someone without putting in the work. That they can handle it for you. With all the time saved, you can now keep and maintain relationships with thousands of people, right?
Dunbar’s number is non-negotiable. We simply aren’t capable of reasonably and regularly “keeping up with” more than a very small handful of people. Throughout the course of our lives our relationships will wax and wane. Some people will fall by the wayside. It does not mean you don’t like them. It doesn’t mean you aren’t friends!
Social media tries to do two things:
Make friendship binary. All or nothing. This makes it emotionally difficult to unfollow people.
Why? Because the more content in your feed there is, the more you’ll scroll. The more ads you’ll see, the more money they’ll make.
Automate away all of the meaningful parts that keep us connected to others.
Why? Because the algorithm knows that the users who spend the most time on the platform are the ones who feel isolated and anxious.
Recognizing these truths can help you take back control of your own relationships with other people. Relationships in the real world are not as clear-cut as on social media, but they are more meaningful. And putting the time in is the only way these meaningful relationships can exist.