15/12/2016 12:57 PM IST | Updated 22/12/2016 1:55 PM IST

Like Me But Don't Talk to Me: 'Friendships' On Social Media

Justin Lewis
People on phones with social media icon chalkboard

I was meeting some friends whom I had not seen in ages. Thanks to Facebook, we had re-connected after a gap of almost five years. Most of us had last seen each other as single (or attached) girls graduating from college. Then life took us in different directions. Some found jobs in Kolkata, some left for other cities, some got married immediately, some went abroad for higher studies. Deciding on a venue, making reservations, and then finally seeing each other on the D-day—our excitement was evident to our respective families. The restaurant lounge turned into a college reunion where other guests turned around to stare at us. Our teachers, had they been around, would have shushed us for the noise we made.

Why should the lavish lunch you prepare in honour of a very close friend go on Facebook? Isn't that afternoon special for the two of you?

By the time we found our table and I was ready for some heart-to-heart conversations, I saw everyone was preoccupied with finding their phones. I waited patiently, realising everyone wants to take photos. Then out came the phones. Which model? How much did it cost? Which website had the best deal? Okay, I thought to myself, this is just the fluff that will settle down soon. But no, then the flurry of selfies started. Everyone wanted selfies with the whole group using their own phones. Everyone—16 people. Then the waiters were engaged to click photos of the group, with each of the phones. Forty minutes in, we hadn't even ordered drinks or appetizers. Finally, when we started looking at the menus, I sensed a strange silence around me. I chuckled. Everyone must be engrossed in what the restaurant had to offer. Then I looked up. I saw everyone staring at their phones—now it was time for Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. Soon after, our "reunion" came to an end. I returned with no memories to cherish of the evening. My Facebook account was flooded with photos of the evening in which I am tagged. A cousin, after one such reunion with family, complained, "Keu golpo korte chay na, shobai shudhu chhobi tultey byasto (No one is interested in conversation; all they want is to click photos)."

Last summer, on revisiting the Niagara Falls, once again we were ready to experience the majesty of that volume of water rushing down while you are on the "Maid of the Mist" boat that carries you through the curtain of spray and mist—it takes your breath away, every time. At the peak of the ride through the mighty mist, when it's quite a struggle to keep your eyes open, we crossed the point where you are face to face with the cascade tumbling down. This time, a gorgeous rainbow graced the sky above it. Gazing into the beauty, I heard a familiar sound. Chlik. Chlik. Chlik. I looked around. People had their backs to the gorgeous view and were clicking selfies! The rest of the ride back people's eyes and thumbs remained locked on the smartphone screens while mother nature passed them by.

Don't get me wrong. I seriously appreciate the power of social media. I think it can be very empowering for many users and situations. And it is a lot of fun sharing photos of loved ones or fond moments or news articles and receiving "likes" on one's wall posts. I am thankful that I have reconnected with friends and made new ones around the world because of Facebook. But can, or should, social media substitute face-to-face social interactions?

Many people don't pay attention to the update. They hit "like" instinctively. So, both the person who posts something and the friend who likes it fool themselves and each other.

Creating online personas, which used to be the hallmark of video games and online chat rooms in the 90s, seems to have attained its complete fruition in social media. On FB, frequently changing profile pictures (sometimes every day), status updates such as "Eating samosas at Chhatrapati Station in amchi Mumbai" and "Flying to Zurich for Oktoberfest", and photos of "fun" in shopping, are regular fare.

Presenting the curated image of oneself seems to increase self-esteem but develops distance and acute disconnection. Of course we are inclined to share happy moments with all, and difficult ones with fewer closer people. But why should the lavish lunch you prepare in honour of a very close friend go on Facebook? Isn't that afternoon special for the two of you? For catching up with all the years you haven't stood under the same roof in the same country? For recalling those silly jokes from your schooldays? For feeling comfortable in your pajamas or cotton sari and not bothering to deck up for the virtual world? But no, it is more important to dress up and take tons of photos and share them on FB. The FB world is waiting for gloriously dressed friends in picture perfect circumstances. Who cares about missing out on those precious moments? Who cares that these friends may not meet in another 10 years?

And no sooner does a friend's status change than her/his followers embark on their "liking" mission. I have personally experienced it. I shared an update on FB around 11:45pm and instantly it received its first like. After observing this trend for a while, I realised that many people don't pay attention to the update. They hit "like" instinctively. So, both the person who posts something and the friend who likes it fool themselves and each other. At one point, owing to a group of people I was invited to "friend", I started "unfollowing" them because of the millions of comments and tags that I found myself embroiled in. Interestingly, though, many of these "friends" hardly talk to each other in real life or share a cup of tea or are interested in knowing more about each other beyond the FB posts. Such activity often seems like a virtual extension of social situations, both in India and among the diaspora, when people "must be seen" (to like) in order to "save face" for any number of purposes.

Technology and social media offer a perfect tool to remain disconnected and superficially embedded in a social group.

On the other hand, use of social media allows many of us to share critical information with others who may be able to help or benefit from timely information. Before WhatsApp was around, I learned of a relative's passing from an FB post when I could not reach my family in Hyderabad via phone for several hours. The purpose of the post was to inform family living around the world. I have friends who are active environmentalists and they share extremely valuable information about the little things that each of us can do to protect the earth. Some of my FB friends are academics and they share critiques of current socio-cultural-political events animating the world around us. I may not have found all this information by myself. In fact, I have been following the #NoDAPL movement in South Dakota very closely, through FB. I understand many news channels and newspapers have all but stopped reporting on one of the most racist acts against Native Americans in recent history. I have been reading the debates about the recent demonetisation move in India on FB as friends on both sides of the argument share their sources. The Arab Spring that animated the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region in 2011 was crucially informed and shaped by social media.

I enjoy using Facebook and Instagram. I like my friends' posts that reveal a side of them that I may not know much about. When someone shares her daughter's birthday photos, I am delighted to see my school friend who tested our teachers' patience with her witty replies transformed into a gorgeous mother. When a "friend" shares her college days' photos when John Lennon was her obsession, I am delighted to identify with her musical taste. I am sure all of us have these friends who share aspects of their identities that we don't necessarily get to know in a few encounters. And of course there are people for whom social media is a platform for empowerment and for some professions, being social media savvy is essential.

I think what concerns me most is that many people don't seem to have useful conversations, and technology and social media offer a perfect tool to remain disconnected and superficially embedded in a social group. This is not to say that no one is invested in serious bonding and friendship. But too many people are focused on their personas and the number of likes. All of us know a couple of such social-media-residents. My parents still have friends from their college days and they have their addas scheduled once every few months. Such 40-plus years of friendship reveal a strong bond that is deeper than any number of likes that the most popular "friend" on FB can receive. Andrew O' Hagan's piece on true friendship is quite telling.

But do we really want to build such relationships?

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