Over the last decade or so, social media has offered us a virtual existence now commonly referred to as the metaverse. It’s a place where we can connect with friends and strangers alike in a unique way, bringing humanity closer than ever before. But with all that closeness comes discomfort.
Remember when the most annoying thing on Facebook was receiving endless invitations to play Farmville? These days, the most frustrating thing about social media is that everybody seems to be upset about something – and they want you to know it.
Think about it. How often do we find ourselves either posting or reading judgements and complaints about someone or something? Do such posts outnumber the number of times we offer a positive remark about someone or something?
The legendary boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Social media made y'all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.”
He’s correct. In recent years, our world has witnessed an uptick in vicious behavior that once primarily existed in cyberspace. What were once vile words aggressively pecked behind an anonymous keyboard now have faces and names in our day to day lives. Now, more than ever, we witness retail workers, service providers, medical professionals, even clergy being verbally abused and degraded on nearly a daily basis.
As a result, far too often, we are seeing precisely what Mr. Tyson warned about: physical violence. As the rhetoric and anger from the metaverse spills into our actual universe, we witness brother against brother, mass shootings in schools and public places, an increase in suicides, and a sense of universal division and despair. When the anger of the metaverse is regurgitated into reality, it further flames the fire of hatred and division.
Likewise, social media has encouraged an “us versus them” mentality that has managed to make its way from the metaverse into actual reality. In 2008, dot-com exec turned "motivational speaker,” Seth Godin wrote a book entitled "Tribes," wherein he argued the case that thanks in large part to social media, the years to follow the book's publication would be ripe for leaders to emerge and form various agenda-driven "tribes" of people and lead them in various movements. To persuade his readers into conformity with his proposal, Godin did a bit of gaslighting by suggesting that if you don't fall in line with one of the "tribes," you risk becoming a "sheepwalker."
Contrary to Godin's superficial hypothesis, social media has demonstrated that the real "sheepwalkers" are the ones who are content settling into the limited compartmentalization of a "tribe." Nevertheless, it seems how we think, what we do, what we say, and what we believe has been reduced to a very dangerous summation: “Whose ‘side’ are you on?” Indeed, reducing us to tribes. Some conspiracy theorists attest this was the objective the creators of social media had in mind from its inception. Despite this supposition, however, those who believe in social media’s sinister origins still use the medium – primarily to create further division.
Despite its flaws, social media has its merits when utilized with discretion. For example, during the pandemic social media acted as a cure for loneliness in some people. We must recognize, however, that the instantaneous cure for loneliness afforded to us by technology is fleeting, and far too often it manages to dilute and even compromise the authentic cure that only comes from an actual community.
An appropriate sense of “real life” community is essential. While social media connects us with like-minded people – which isn't healthy when those individuals coddle our vices and divisiveness, it cannot replace the vital role ‘real life’ community plays in our mental health. To exist exclusively in the metaverse is to dwell in a lonely desert of one's own making.
I recently stumbled upon a comic strip. The image was of a casket and an empty funeral home apart from two men. One man was saying to the other, “Strange, isn’t it? He had over 5,000 followers online.”
I recall another comic strip of a gentleman seated in a chair staring intently at his smartphone. A woman standing behind him has a thought bubble that reads, “In my day we called them imaginary friends.”
Rather than existing almost exclusively in the metaverse and wearing our devices as an extension of our hands, many of us need to adopt a habit of extending those once captive hands to our neighbors and our community as a balm for the loneliness and division of this world. If we do not, we will surely go mad.
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