It wasn’t long ago that I found myself yet again, drink in hand, milling around a room of around seven people who were supposed to be thirty. The Facebook event was created weeks ago, attendees had casually clicked “attending”, and then when the evening actually rolled around most had forgotten, made other plans, or simply couldn’t be bothered. See, in the age of digital communication all it takes is a couple of finger taps and a half-hearted sorry mate I’m working early tomorrow so can’t make it :( xx to cancel. In the moments that I’ve found myself guilty of the same behaviour, I can’t help but wonder if social media – supposedly a revolution in connectivity - has made us all worse at being good friends.
We’re well-versed by this point in the ways that social media can wreak havoc on romantic relationships. We’ve even created new language to accommodate it. “Micro-cheating” can range from liking Instagram posts or friending certain people on Facebook to holding a suspiciously long snapchat streak with another user. If the insecurities already exist, you can bet on the fact that social media will compound them, offering users all the resources they need to view and obsess over the online activities of their partner. Naturally, the same logic applies to other relationships too; yet friendship is often left out of the discussion.
The effect is measurable. A recent survey conducted by a U.S health insurance company found, for instance, that “post millennials” (aged 18-22) scored as the loneliest of all social groups, with your regular, avocado-eating millennials not far behind. And whilst the study found no correlation between frequency of social media use and loneliness, what it didn’t account for was how, rather than how often, this group uses the technology.
Simply put, social media, whilst convenient, has made many of us lazy. I remember picking my jaw up off the floor when a family friend once told me an anecdote in which she’d arranged to meet an old school friend at King’s Cross station in London. After travelling over a hundred miles and waiting for almost two hours, she realised her friend wouldn’t show and was forced to return home. A no-show back then was monumentally rude, (or at least required a very good excuse) with no last-ditch option to call or text and cancel at the very last minute.
Of course, sometimes there are perfectly good reasons to cancel plans with someone. But technology has made it easy to give in to even the slightest impulse to sack someone off to watch Netflix/go to bed/do something else. This fluidity of arrangements seeps in to more formal events than the pub, too. If you’ve ever tried to organise a party, trip, or holiday for a group over Facebook you’ll be well acquainted with the infuriating clicks-yes-but-doesn’t-show-up crowd, and even worse, the maybe or interested attendees. (Seriously, why do those options exist in the first place?)
Even if your plans aren’t flaked on there’s the pitfall of snapchat stories, Instagram posts and Whatsapp groups to induce friendship anxiety. Finding out that your friends are hanging out without you, chatting in groups you’re not included in or even shunning one event to attend another are all made possible through apps that we log into dozens of times a day.
Superficially, and perhaps at the beginning of a friendship, these social networks serve us well. They allow us to make connections that we might otherwise feel awkward to attempt in real life. Online communities can be a godsend for certain groups of people. But this connectivity is a double-edged sword when it comes to long-term friendships, where the pressure to keep up with one another can induce guilt when we fail to stay in touch.
It’s true that social media has been a revolution in connectivity. But there’s a limit to how far this connectivity can replace bonding in real time, and how far it can maintain meaningful contact. With swathes of the people who use this technology the most reporting feelings of crippling loneliness, it’s about time we re-evaulated our unhealthy reliance upon it.