Disconnect to Reconnect?

A couple of months ago, I travelled to Alsace and stopped for one night in Paris.

I was staying at a youth hostel, and before I dozed off, I overheard an Australian in my dorm whisper, “Hey, there’s no wi-fi!” His friend replied, “Dude, you’re in Paris. Why the hell do you need wi-fi?”

And I thought about how two good friends backpacking across Europe and savouring its scenery, history and culture, still felt the need to be connected elsewhere.

Somewhere in the corners of the Australian backpacker’s mind hung the potential for a different connection and the looming fear that he was missing out on something that was happening elsewhere; something that he would never know unless he logged on.

With smartphones connecting us to the internet directly from our pockets, we now have the ability to span distances – the potential of acquiring a different connection within a pinch and a tap on a small screen is closing down the borders between virtual and physical space.

Social media provides us with a platform through which we can share content at no cost, to a boundless audience.

For instance, I wake up to see pictures of what my friends in Asia are having for breakfast, or what another friend bought while shopping in Paris or London – all this in real-time even though physically we’re in different time-zones.

Nonetheless, our perceived level of interconnectedness is only psychological.

What we are inherently creating via social media is what blogger Nicholas Scalice called the “Biggest, most engaging conversation in the history of human communication.” Social media has not opened a window but a horizon for self-disclosure. But what exactly are we getting out of sharing ourselves online?

By nature, we cannot help but share our subjective take on things, no matter who is listening. Statistics show that 40 per cent of our conversations are about the self, and the popularity of social media might be related to our primal urge of talking about ourselves.

In fact, recent neuroscientific research demonstrates that acts of self-disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions, belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction we also obtain from food, money or sex. Thus, the brain is positively reinforced and that is why we find talking about ourselves so enjoyable.

The habit of online self-disclosure is not necessarily taken up by people who are bored or in need of company. A survey conducted by T-Mobile in the UK has shown that people are sharing their lives online even while on holiday. I would think that people travel to get away from the stresses and routines of home, and yet 60 per cent of Britons admittedly log on to Facebook or Twitter while on holiday, specifically to boast about what they are up to.

Smoasters (neologism: social media + boasters), was coined to refer to people who use social media to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about their achievements, possessions or abilities.

Yet updating others while on holiday is not a new trend. Take the early 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, for instance. He documented his ascent to Mt Ventoux in France, describing the journey to the summit and the views over the Rhone to the bay of Marseilles.

It could be argued that if the same poet had to climb the same mountain today, he too would tweet verses about it. Of course: But would his subjective experience of the ascent be the same, or would it be existentially different?

Petrarch had the luxury of being alone, to process and reflect about his experience without being interrupted by other peoples’ updates rolling in, on his Newsfeed. Sometimes, I feel that we may be losing the beauty of the “now” because we are constantly pining for a different connection, possibly triggered by the fear of missing out.

Nobody can wait anymore, not because we can’t, but because we don’t have to.

Then again, new technology always sparks up some sort of controversy, possibly instilled by an intrinsic fear churned by our ignorance or misunderstanding of it. Nonetheless, we have always adapted it to our needs.

Sherry Turkle wrote that our relationship with technology is still in its infancy and evolving gradually.

Moreover, Howard Rheingold, in his recent publication Net Smart, encourages us to continue growing in this symbiotic relationship by learning to use media intelligently, humanely and mindfully.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta on August 26, 2012.

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