My 21st-Century Social Science

I have spent much time over the last year trying to understand why social media so often leaves me despondent. Only very rarely, after all, are there moments when individuals on my feeds “act out” in a way that is personally distressing to me, and I am extremely grateful that I myself have acted badly on these platforms only a few times (I am especially grateful to all my friends of social media for forgiving me my trespasses). For the most part my feeds are overwhelmingly dominated by good and funny people sharing stories of their everyday triumphs and struggles, baby and puppy pictures, news stories about outrageous (and, more rarely, heroic) people and institutions—and (since my feeds are overwhelmingly dominated by creative and talented people) works-in-progress. These are all things I deeply enjoy, shared by people I care about and admire. 

So, why does time on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr so often leave in its wake shades of sadness—or, more often of late, much darker hues? 

And there is the related question: knowing that this will be my response, why do I keep going back? After all, if the problem lies not in Facebook or Twitter, then surely it lies with me. So if I can’t engage with social media without risking depression, why do I not simply walk away, as I would with a relationship or a job that costs much more than it gives back in return?

There have been several recent studies identifying the outlines of a connection between social media and depression, but thus far they have tended to identify the source of the problem in the addictive nature and negative impact of “social comparison”—the daily comparisons of our mixed and muddled everyday lives against the “highlight reels” of others. 

Engaging in my own “self-study,” I am convinced my issue lies elsewhere, although I don’t yet fully understand it. Facebook was founded in 2004, and I joined in late 2006, shortly after my first extended period of illness and a final surgery that provided a meaningful (if ultimately short-lived) respite. Before I had become sick in late 2004, I had been a very social person, despite a lifelong struggle with moderate social anxiety. People made me nervous, but I craved their company. For a decade my wife and I hosted dinner parties a couple of times a month, and even hosted larger parties on a fairly regular basis. I had lunch dates 2 or 3 times a week with colleagues and friends. I spent hours on the phone with my long-distance friends and family. 

By the time I was recovering from my second surgery in the summer of 2006, all that had begun to change. As I now see it from the distance of almost a decade, the change would prove irrevocable. But in 2006, I was still operating—as I and my doctors would continue to do for much of the next eight years—under a model of acute illness, believing I was afflicted with a malady to be cut out, irradiated, poisoned out of my body. So it was I entered the world of social media for the first time believing the worst was behind me and that this new technology provided the best means to start reconnecting to the world while I recovered my social sea-legs. 

Of course, as I am only beginning to understand now, I was not in the grips of acute illness but chronic, albeit a chronic condition that still had its ebbs and flows, and even, at the time. extended periods of remission. Along the way there would be acute issues that needed to be addressed with the scalpel, furthering my belief (and that of my doctors) that mine was an acute (if oddly resistant to either explanation or cure) series of maladies. 

So it was that after each retreat in the face of illness I returned desperate to rekindle a sense of social connection, and turned with renewed vigor to Facebook. And it worked, sort of, for stretches. But despite its ability to “connect” us one to another, for me at least those connections turn out to be carried on the thinnest, most brittle filaments, tendrils that bind but carry few of the nutrients essential to social life.

I am no technophobe. Quite the opposite. So it has taken me a good decade to accept this reality. I know many who severed those tendrils years ago, and many more for whom social media is genuinely nourishing and who have cultivated beautiful gardens among its brambles. But for me, foolish me, it is a broken field of winter brambles from which I am unwilling to extricate myself. For better and worse, it remains the closest to a “social life” I am likely to achieve any time soon.

Everything I am describing here is no doubt familiar to many living with chronic illness—mental and/or physical. Making plans in meatspace is scary. Leaving aside the parade of medical appointments and regimens, day to day—and sometimes hour to hour—capabilities both emotional and physical can vary wildly. Hosting a dinner party is about the most terrifying prospect imaginable when you might not be functional or presentable the night the party rolls around. One too many canceled dates and friends start pulling away, understandably taking it personal (especially if, as is the case for many of us, the pattern starts long before the diagnosis is in hand to help explain it). One too many dates whiteknuckled against the demands of every fiber in your being into crawl under the covers until the episode passes, and pretty soon the cost of making plans in the real world begins to outweigh the benefits. 

Before you know it, you start calling all the events on your calendar to see even the most loving, forgiving and nourishing of friends commitments—because the minute they are made you can’t help but start that most dismal of meditations: “Things are going well now, so the odds are they will be bad by the end of the week? Did I cancel on her last time? Afternoons seem to be rough this week, so maybe I should change it to morning? That bar never has enough seats and there is no way I’ll be able to stand more than an hour? What was I thinking? What should I do?”

Of course, for many mental and physical chronic illnesses, stress is seismic trigger, so the result of this chain is a self-fulfilling prophecy (and loneliness and too much time in one’s own head is another trigger, and so we return, moths to the flame). Even if brain and body conspire to liberate you from the vortex of anticipatory unraveling, the very act of getting ready to go out is a minefield in itself. For me: klonepin for the now not-so-moderate social anxiety; compression stockings that take 20 minutes to pull on, a process requiring another 20 minutes of recovery; a liter of water to wash down the salt pills; a strategically-timed nap (what if I can’t sleep? what if I sleep too long?); where’s my “cool” cane? Does this cane make me look old? What do people talk about these days?

Everyone dealing with chronic illness has their own pregame ritual, one that we hide from the world as best we can because we don’t want the evening’s conversation to be about our illness (insomnia gives us more than enough time thinking about that), because we want the friends we are seeing less and less often to remember us at our “best,” because we still want to be “normal.”

So it is I continue to make plans I will quite likely cancel, straining already weathered relationships. So it is that from each retreat from Facebook I gingerly return, hoping to suck what marrow I can from those brittle straws. And even when it seems that much of what there is flowing through social media’s capillaries is fear, grief, and even hate—as is the case this week—it is still, truly, better than nothing. And I am grateful for it. And for you.