Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The Loneliness of the Internet User
"Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection--or compassionate action."--Daniel Goleman, from Social Intelligence
As someone who likes to write, I go back and forth about whether I should write about myself and my personal experiences, or stop navel-gazing and write about other people. Write what you know versus be creative. Great writers (and actors and other artistic types) are empathetic enough that they can write about someone else's experiences and make it sound completely authentic. They get inside their characters' minds. I'd like to to be able to do that. Problem is, I often feel like I don't really KNOW what other people are thinking or experiencing. I've lost some of my ability to pick up on subtle clues--non-verbal signs that tell you what the other person is feeling. So instead I turn inward, and write about what's going on there. And I'm worried that it's a slippery-slope leading to self-absorption. And one of the things I'm working on here is to become a more compassionate person. So I find my goals and my reality are at odds.
I think the problem lies in a lack of close personal connections. For this, I partly blame the internet.
Much of this blog is about finding a way to connect--to my neighbors, to old friends, to my family, even to strangers (maybe even especially strangers, since I don't know a lot of people in Boston yet.) I have a love/hate relationship with technology because on the one hand it allows us to do so much that we couldn't do even five years ago (maybe I'd heard of blogging back then, but it took me a long time to catch up!) On the other hand, I feel like it's also isolating. Mike and I talked about this the other night--how we have so many ways to reach out to people--social networks, texting, email. But we have less really close friends. And this is not an original idea I'm having--there was a study done that said people in 1985 had more close friends living in their community than they do presently. Back in 1985, I was in junior high school, and though I'd never want to go through THAT again, I did have many good friends who I saw everyday. Now I'm lucky to see my friends once a month.
Yesterday I signed up on Facebook for the first time--ostensibly for work, but I was also curious about it on a personal level. I looked up my old classmates from the two high schools I attended. At first it was really interesting to see pictures of people I had grown up with. Many posed with husbands and children. Some had moved away, but most had stayed in New Jersey, where I'm from. I was disappointed that some of the people I had lost touch with weren't on Facebook, so I wouldn't get the chance to reconnect with them. I wondered what I would say to people I "friended." Would we just trade facts about our lives--the best and most shiny bits--or would we actually become real friends? It seems like the former is most likely.
My point is, I much prefer to meet people in person and actually interact with them. It's too easy to hide behind an avatar. Technology might have brought us some fun and innovative ways to communicate, and I do like blogging and getting comments from some really wonderful people whom I wouldn't have had the chance to meet otherwise. But I can't help feeling that the internet is killing the way things used to be, when you knew your neighbors and people came together to help each other, and you met people face to face. If we don't know the people around us, and just know old and new friends by pictures on MySpace or as a curvaceous avatar on Second Life, will that kill our compassion for the live, flesh and blood people all around us? I live in a major American city, and I have access to lots of ways to socialize on the Net. So why do I feel so alienated sometimes?
I wonder how others feel about this...