The Distance From Here
On Change, Taking a Hiatus, and Pressing Out Beyond What We’ve Known
There’s a distance from here I can feel. It’s a distance from the location where I live, but it’s also a proverbial and mental distance. And over the past few months, it only seems to have grown.
First, there is the geographic distance from here to most all the people I know and love. It was sort of like this when I was deployed to Asia. There, I was eight hours ahead of the east coast, so communication was an interesting and intermittent situation. In many ways, I guess one could call my current situation a deployment of sorts, but it’s a “deployment” to a part of America that very few people know exists. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the continental United States, but sometimes even that creates the distance of which I speak. There’s the physical distance that can be measured on a map.
I live in town of about 4,000. It’s a quiet, languid little place. There’s no traffic. The people are nice. There aren’t a lot of bumper stickers. People don’t discuss their politics. They are unobtrusive, cordial, warm, and friendly; quick to lend a hand. There are no sirens or car horns blaring all day long. One can go about his or her daily business without being physically or intellectually accosted. There is no pretentiousness, which — even for small towns like this — is extremely rare. I’ve lived in only one other place where this is true. I am virtually anonymous here, unlike other places where I seem to have some permanently-affixed identity based on how the people there know me, even if the label they apply comes from something I did 30 years ago when I was 21.
This anonymity is extremely liberating. It frees me up to be whatever I want to be now. I’m not shackled to some past label or identity. It’s refreshing. I can be who I am now without dragging around the old baggage that people load me up with as soon as I return to those other places.
And so the more liberated I feel from this geographic distance, the more distant I feel mentally. This even greater intellectual remoteness only seems to grow, day by day. Because I know very few people out here, I have only social media to stay “connected” to the people I know. The problem is, my social media “feed” has started to contribute to this intellectual distance.
Social media; you know. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Linkedin.
Facebook. The monster of social media. Limitless. As another, young writer on Medium noted, “The time wasting, addictive drug that lets us subliminally express our deepest narcissistic thoughts.” One can post virtually anything on Facebook, so-called status updates, check-ins, pictures, links to other social media or news articles, memes, etc., and there is no limit to the text or number of hashtags one can attach. We find out if anyone actually sees our posts when they “like,” “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “sad,” or “angry” in response. Putting aside the fact that Facebook brings out the worst, affirmation-seeking, and banal in us, there are serious concerns regarding the security of our personal information. And moreover, Facebook deceives us into believing we are actually connected to our “friends,” when the reality is Facebook funnels out much of what we post and see, such that Facebook itself is the only entity that sees everything we post, and they save it on their servers and give it to marketers. There may have been a day when we were all truly and actually connected on Facebook, but that day is long gone now.
Instagram. A tiny version of Facebook, requiring the posting of a photograph, but with unlimited ability to attach commentary and hashtags. About the only difference between Facebook and Instagram is the aforesaid requirement to post a picture and the inability to attach any links to your post. Of all social media, Instagram might be the most useful, due to its limitations as compared with Facebook. Less is indeed more. And Instagram’s more minimalist approach makes it more workable and less prone to banality than Facebook.
Twitter. An even tinier version of Facebook and Instagram combined. Post a picture or text, or both, but you’re limited to 280 characters, including hashtags. Of all social media platforms, Twitter is an echo chamber like no other, and it both feeds and reveals the lowest depths to which we can descend. If you ever want to observe or research the collective insanity and incivility people are capable of, just spend a few minutes on Twitter. You’ll come away less hopeful about our prospects as humans than you were before.
And then there’s Linkedin. Perhaps the most useless form of social media of all platforms. Has anybody ever really gotten a job on Linkedin? Has anyone ever gotten a referral? Has anyone seen their own personal stock rise because of something on Linkedin? About the only goal that means anything on Linkedin is getting 500 “connections.” And if you have those 500 connections, do you know half of those people? Have you ever actually met them? But, as with Facebook, you can definitely make yourself look like a rock star, if not in your personal life like on Facebook, assuredly in your chosen professional field. Spending any time on Linkedin is an empty ritual.
Indeed, spending much time on any social media is becoming a time-consuming and empty ritual.
Why? We post. It goes off into the electronic distance. It rarely — if ever — rebounds. Sure, if you have three-thousand “friends” on Facebook, for instance, you might get 500 “likes.” That might sound like a lot, but in reality it’s only 17 percent of your “friends.” What happened to the other 83 percent? Did they even see what you posted? Or are they just blowing you off?
If you look at the question from the other side, maybe we can come up with an answer; the posts that come to us seem — most of the time — irrelevant, trite, or uninteresting. Admit it. Either our “friends” are boring or we ourselves are boring. Or maybe, like the young writer I mentioned above, we are all just subliminally expressing our deepest, narcissistic thoughts. Or maybe it’s all of the above.
In our meager effort to be closer, what we actually do is post and post and post, but in truth, nobody sees or reads most of our posts. I saw a great quote by another writer about this increasingly disturbing, early 21st-century phenomenon: “I am a writer in a society that no longer reads.” We — and I use the term we in the sense of the “royal we” — are projectors who only project, like a movie projector projecting a movie onto a theater screen in an empty theater. And so we keep on projecting out into the infinite reaches of the electronic ether that is social media. Who exactly are our personal target audience? Why exactly are we doing all of this?
I confess that the only use I have for social media anymore is that tenuous and electronic “connection” I have with some people. We’ve devolved such that nobody has the time or energy anymore to call, or send an email, or even a text. So we “connect” on social media. It doesn’t take as much effort as doing it for real. I mean, if I get a text from one of my Facebook “friends” I am both shocked and pleasantly surprised when I receive it. Shocked by the effort they take to actually type or dictate a text, I guess.
I wish I lived in closer proximity to them. Or do I? If I lived close to them, would we all of a sudden start spending time together? I don’t know. But with most, I tend to doubt it. I’ve actually tested my theories; people are willing to “connect” over social media, but when you actually reach out to connect in person, not much happens. Sure, there a few people who will actually do it, and they are the uncommon breed who form that small, intimate circle that we must hold on to at all costs. And we should value and cherish that bond, and continue to nurture it. But it’s rare.
Social media makes it increasingly easier to delude ourselves that we have a lot of friends and intimate connections. I say delude because it is exactly that; a delusion of closeness, of intimacy.
In the final analysis, maybe it’s time for a break, a hiatus of sorts. Perhaps some changes are in order. Because only when we change do we pull ourselves out of a mundane routine that can become an affliction. And we are all afflicted in some way by social media.
Strive for real connection. Spend time face to face. Invest in those rare people who make an effort to be in your company. Only by doing these things can we hope to shorten the distance from here.
Continue to grow.
Get outside your comfort zone,
Into something unfamiliar.
Test your limits.
Press out beyond what you have known.
Glen Hines is the author of three books that make up the Anthology Trilogy — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.