Connection and Isolation

Liz McCready
Alistair McCready
Alistair is a contributing editor of stemme and part of the founding team. He is a printer, designer and design writer based in Auckland, NZ.

Implicit in the term ‘connected’ is the notion of an altruistic ideal. A fluent binding of give and take. Through an analytical lens, we might see this validated, as the Western world now experiences a peculiar state of hyper-connectedness that is arguably another step further away from the fundamental intimacies we, as human beings, overtly desire and seek out. Humankind is wrapped in a cocoon of interwoven, yet intangible relationships. We grow ever closer to one another through the vastness of social media, yet find ourselves in a state of isolation that we are still learning how to define. Simply put; we are more connected than we have ever been, yet somehow we feel alone. We are, as Sherry Turkle puts it, alone together. 

Visual metaphors come to mind, but Rich Ling offers a more evocative analogy. He suggests, “the mobile phone functions symbolically, as an umbilical cord through which one draws virtual nurturance from a larger, more nurturing and protective force.” Such dependence has an adverse effect on how we interact with others. On many levels, our close ties might become closer, but our weak ties also become weaker. Face-to-face is still the most effective communication form, although it is no longer enough. It is now ‘content’ first, words and expression second. Through our tethered lives online, our online network will read and interpret facts that without the backing of a realistic social context, become misconstrued. Strong relationships are strengthened, however the weaker ties slip further away toward disconnect. By inviting people into our network’s inner sanctum, do we feel the security of social acceptance. The underlying expectation is that we remain available at all times—a social contract enabled by technology. This expectation comes from us, as well as the digital community that follows us.

Within this connection lies more than mere communication—we now subconsciously monitor one another. It is here, in this domain, that we see links to much wider theories relative to both surveillance and voyeurism. Foucault suggested that the modern state would eventually decrease its need for ordered surveillance by developing a society that monitors itself. More specifically, he wrote of Jeremy Bentham’s design for a panopticon, as it ‘captured’ how such a citizenry might be shaped. In the panopticon, a wheel-like structure with an observer at its hub, one develops a sense of always being watched, whether or not the observer is actually present. With this image in mind, we can understand the adverse effects that result from a lifestyle so dependent on online social validation. Users so willing to share personal information, without concern that it can or will be used against them. This is not suggesting we neither celebrate nor criticise social media, but rather consider the ambivalence of the online world.

But what of these traits on an individual and internal level? Digital anthropologist Frank Rose explores how entertainment and social networking systems are changing to cater for our desire to be participants, rather than simply observers. We are online strategic positioners; catering to a much larger audience. We search for the ego-boost that occurs when we share a moment that grabs other’s attention. Through this, we look to forge links; establishing our own invisible entourage across multiple social networking platforms. Here it is not about the quality of the connection, but the volume. Confidence that comes through numbers—our desire for social approval—propels us further forward. This quietly conscious hunger within yearns for more of the affection that comes in the form of a simple ‘like’. We have an audience; they are our followers. We wave to them through considered curation; climbing the ladder of online social status, and taking our place in some imaginary golden smokers lounge.

It is fascinating to consider the different ways we can construct our online identities, and the different types of etiquette we might employ in doing so. Digital culture presents us with the opportunity to establish an archive of our online lives. Unsurprisingly, we approach this with a curative mindset. That is to say, we put only our best foot forward. Certainly this is all well and good, and no new concept by any means, but for many it is no longer enough to only curate what we put online. We instead curate our whole lives so that we may share, in all its entirety, our lives online with others. Those with the seemingly flawless lifestyle win. On one hand, we have an advantage through the limitless potential we now possess to market ourselves as individuals worthy of a cause. On the other, we become the victims of our own imagination.

The danger however, lies in our primal desire for status in some form. Fabricated status, either by enhanced truth or heavily edited impression suggests to our peers that we are of somewhat relative, if not greater, means. We see this in Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety; where comparison and competition are common, especially on social sites where we can partake in the voyeuristic process of searching for old friends and acquaintances to discover how their progress in life compares to ours.

The depth at which these connections meet may also serve as a point of concern, as we are informed of each other’s surface details whilst remaining oblivious to the realities of human emotional existence. A reciprocally altruistic partnership, says Steven Pinker, is essentially a willingness to offer someone a favour, but only toward those who appear willing to offer favours in return. In the context of social media, the terms ‘like for like’ or ‘follow for follow,’ aligns with this concept. In essence, we like people who are nice to us, and we are nice to the people whom we like. This may seem somewhat trivial in the larger scale of day-to-day life, however in respect to the underlying psychological factors and issues of self-worth that are intrinsically tied to the number of ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ one receives, greater questions around the subject of validation need to be asked.

It appears that human nature and our newfound reliance on digital advances have an incongruent relationship. Somewhere amidst the tension of a life lived under a framework of this so-called ‘tethered self,’ we hear the soft voice of ‘face value’ beckoning us back to a sense of authenticity in our relationships. No matter how deep we press into the plethora of online social platforms, we still seek something more. Something so natural it can only be described as real.