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Never alone

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Consider the rock star, politician, superhero, genius, prodigy and celebrity at the apex of their fame. Fans clamor, fight, squeal and foam, hoping for a chance to be close to the object of celebration. The multitude continuously validates the celebrity – book signings, trans-continental tours, award ceremonies, collaborations, presidential dinners, photo-op handshakes. One night she sends a Facebook friend request to an old fling, someone who understood her before the fame, pomp and fancy. For weeks she checks her account wait, wait, waiting for a response – electronic affirmation from someone who really matters-nothing ever comes.
It’s a strange condition, to be so surrounded, yet so distant from those who matter, and yet it’s an ever-popular one. The social Internet promised us a flat world of friendship: a realm of decency, camaraderie and meaning. But what we have is quite different from that. And the profiles that represent our persons online are quite different from who we really are.
If we assume that the modern Internet began with Google, we can put an age on it of 14 years. Based on that, anybody born after 1987 has spent the majority of her intelligent life surrounded by a web-centric culture. This generation doesn’t know any different from what they have experienced and continue to experience. During the ages of much needed social experimentation and expansion, technological products have been released almost directly in sync. The social pressures of high school or college were alleviated with MySpace, Facebook or Twitter. Paradigms of mental development have been altered to include the social web.
The thing is, people don’t change much. That isn’t to say individuals don’t change, but the human race exists and reacts in ways very similar to our generational ancestors. Technology develops at an insane velocity. Only five years ago the first truly “smart” phone was released. It’s been within this period that technology has forcibly inserted itself as an essential component of life.
At first the benefits were simple: technology would allow people to connect with one another across vast physical distances in a short amount of time. But to establish connections, we were given the tools to create a web presence – a means of identifying ourselves online. Somewhere in the evolution of technology, the importance of those two flipped: our profiles began to say more than we actually did. Better than just saying who we were in real life, we were given the ability to alter our profiles to reflect whatever we wanted them to. We could also be selective or encompassing in who we interacted with. Profiles, posts, texting and whatnot let us present the image of who we want to be. We can edit out our inadequacies and shortcomings, we can skip the messy bits of face-to-face conversations, we can all become awesome beings totally in control of our lives. Dangerously, we begin to forget how fallible we are.
Technology is fascinating and powerful. So is human interaction, and that’s something a generation is increasingly forgetting. A connection is not a conversation. Being friends with someone on Facebook is not equitable to human interaction. Yet we thrive on these superficial connections. People take to Twitter or Facebook in the middle of the night in hopes of a chance to express and be recognized. People log into Facebook before they brush their teeth in the morning, before they have coffee, before they get dressed. There’s a fascination in the voyeurism of exploring others lives. After all, if you’re inspecting their projected life, wouldn’t they be inspecting yours?
Seldom do people have the opportunity to look at their social profiles and actually compare what’s on the page with what’s on their mind. A photo album of 300 pictures can reflect the atmosphere of a party, but reality proves you spent a night observing a party from behind a camera lens in hope of preserving it.
As great as technology is, I challenge you to give up on it. Turn it off, shut it down, launch it to the moon, blow it to pieces. It’s not that the Internet must be ruining your life, nobody is saying that. Rather, those born after 1987 haven’t lived without technology, at least not of a long while. Quitting Facebook won’t be enough. Quitting the Internet is a start. Henry David Thoreau would be proud.
We expect more out of technology than we do out of each other, and that is a fundamental flaw. By leaving the internet behind, you will be forced to examine your interactions. And I suspect you will find more trust in those you care for, and those who care for you. Self-reflection requires intimacy and empathy, two things which cannot be found on a broadcast system to 1,000 of your best “friends.” Maintaining your identity is exhausting; specifically when it’s something you have to do twenty-four hours a day. Forget about fans, likes, views, comments, reblogs, @replies and everything. Forget about yourself for a bit, disconnect and live for a bit.

Blake J. Graham is a freshman. He can be reached on Twitter
@BlakeGraham or at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.