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Guest Thinkers

You Control Your Relationships, Not Social Media

 In a recent article, MSNBC called Facebook the divorce lawyer’s new best friend. Social media allows people to easily meet and flirt with attractive people, diverting attention and time away from significant others. The problem with this virtual bar is that it leaves a paper trail of status updates, tweets, photographs and comments that are a goldmine to divorce lawyers. The article reports that “the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says 81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.”

Even for the eternally faithful, social media presents another problem: distraction. Constantly checking on what their ever-increasing group of friends are saying on networking sites means less time for meeting a core group of friends and family.

The bottom line: social media threatens the bond between people. Even though we appear to be in the company of many, we are actually solitary because the power of each relationship is weak. (Definitely read MIT social anthropologist Sherry Turkle’s anticipated book Alone Together which will explore this subject.)

But wait, there’s a flip side to this dark story too: a joyful happy ending.

People are much more engaged in each other’s life thanks to social media, finding it easier to realign friendships as they discover people who share their interests and capture their imagination. Families stay in touch regardless of where they are living in the world, and couples can successfully carry out the dreaded “long-distance relationship” with ease. The New York Times reports on Chantelle Welp and Colin Sorensen who manage to have a “loving-distance affair” because they Skype for hours a week even though they attend college in two different states and only see each other on holidays. “Two years later, they are still seriously dating, cross-country. “In love, most definitely,” Mr. Sorensen says.” 

Digital anthropologist Stefana Broadbent says that contrary to popular belief, social media increases intimacy between friends and lovers, giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship beyond the constraints of time and geography. In this fascinating TED talk, Broadbent profiles a young Brazilian couple who immigrated to Italy and managed to keep in touch with family via social media. In particular, they scheduled “dinner” once a week with a close friend in Rio by putting the computer on their dinner table and skyping while they and their friends enjoyed a meal and glass of wine in two different continents.

Bottom line: Social media strengthens the bond between people. We are able to enjoy richer stronger relationships because we can share what matters to us more regularly with each other.

Which conclusion about social media is true? The answer is: it depends on you. If instead of being a passive participant, you actively organize your social media interactions (much as you schedule your work, parties, dinners and meetings), you will find that indeed social media can make your relationships richer.

Here are three simple tips:

#1. Schedule Your Social Media. Social media takes time – time away from other things like actually reading the news instead of status updates; spending time with your friends; getting your assignment done on time. The worst mistake you can do is to constantly read what your peers are tweeting or quickly flip through your friend’s photos frolicking in Ibiza. If you add up the seconds you spend on social networks everyday, you might be able to carve out an hour to go to the gym. The best way to enjoy social media is to set aside time for it (instead of multi-tasking which makes you poorer in paying attention to either your network or your work) and then pay attention to what your friends are saying and engage with them by commenting on their photos, job updates, day, and articles they are reading. If you really love social media, schedule 10 minutes twice (even thrice) a day. Although 30 minutes a day sounds like a lot, the truth is most people spend considerably more time in small chunks on social media over the day without even realizing it.

#2. Be Innovative. If you always met your friend at the same bar year after year, or only discussed the exhibit at the Moma every time you chatted, you’d get bored. Yet we fall into the same kind of automatic perfunctory interactions on social media all the time. We loved the idea of the Brazilian couple (mentioned earlier) who had a dinner date every fortnight with a friend using Skype. Gather a few friends on Skype, have a drink, dance … have fun! Meet in Second Life, play chess on Twitter: we need to increasingly experiment with our digital social environment. Friendships stagnate in the physical world and just because we “Like” a status update doesn’t mean that they are not deeply stagnant in social media as well.

#3. Get Physical. We don’t live on a chip in a computer, which is why our bodies feel dissatisfied with mostly virtual interactions. Social media is a great opportunity to schedule events and drinks with friends. Naysayers warn that social media enthusiasts become withdrawn over time, but we’ve found exactly the opposite. Usually, social people are the ones who are most vocal on Facebook. They may be socially awkward, but they’re definitely sociable.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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