The past month of my life has just been chock-full of strange connections and coincidences as I’ve made a move into my semi-permanent home at the University, gone through the Greek recruitment process, and started my classes. Every single day, I seem to meet someone new. It can be a tedious process, memorizing and recalling the hundred upon thousands of individuals and their subsequent stories that surround me here on campus. However, thanks to the developments of the recent age of technology that is social media and my use of it, I often feel like I already know the person I am talking to. Through mutual friends on social media sites, I’ve seen their faces and know details about them that help give life to our conversations, disregarding awkward initial impressions entirely (I’ll get to this in a bit). Even if I haven’t somehow found myself on their profile sometime beforehand, I can easily pick up my cell phone, open up Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, click ‘Add Friend’ or ‘Follow’, and quickly have an array of images and information available to me-- specifically about the individual that I have just met. By typing in only their name (first or last, I’ll find them; the wonders of auto-fill) into my ‘Search’ box, I can easily access posts that show me who they are. We can be connected for the rest of our lives, and yet possibly never see one another ever again.
This, I now realize, has completely defined my college experience thus far. I am connected to others in an entirely new way than any generation before me has been, and I have the ability to shape my relationships differently due to the technology and media that I can access so readily.
This redefining power that the ever-changing, ever-expanding media has is influential in what is known as stranger sociability, or our ability as individuals to communicate and deal with strangers. It has affected my own interactions with strangers (or those who otherwise would have been strangers had social media platforms not existed), and it affects our connected society as a whole. In having the ability to access information that has previously only been accessible through in-person interactions, such as interests, mutual friendships, and personal opinions. We can start to feel as though we have been old friends with a person after spending ten minutes browsing through what they have posted on their Facebook wall, even if we have only known them for a single day.
Rather than interacting through deep, meaningful conversations, it takes a few clicks to discover music and movie preferences, a few more to find political ideologies. And while there may be positive implications for those of us brave and willing enough to bring up what we have found from our searches in the next interaction we have with that person (if there even is another), how do those of us-- as introverted extroverts like myself who struggle to know exactly the right time to blurt out that we saw that you liked an obscure book or movie from years ago-- that don’t have such profound confidence interact with others beyond social media? It can be an awkward in-between, full of discomfort and insecurity. Simultaneously, however, research tends to show that “...one of social networking's greatest benefits is its ability to bring meaningful friendships to people who might otherwise be shunned as outcasts… [as] socially anxious teens who might have been left out now have a voice…” (Novotney, 2012). Even so, I feel that it is so socially acceptable, and even expected, to create connections on social media platforms, but our dependence and deep roots in using it as the only means of communication and relationships with others can be summed up by Holly Schiffrin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington: “...Technology can be used to build and maintain in-person relations, but it's not a satisfactory substitute for in-person relationships,” (Schiffrin, 2010). I think that we often forget this, and although it is sometimes cool to find be surprised by the connections you find with other people and what they post on their Facebooks, Instagrams, Twitters, or beyond, it is difficult to develop real, long-lasting and significant relationships when that is all that we base them off of.
As a new college student, I am desperately searching for a tight-knit group of friends, and this struggle with my own stranger sociability constantly races through my mind. I’m finding my way, but cautiously so. If we can understand the effects of our instant desire and thus action of adding people on Facebook or following them elsewhere on our relationships and how we develop them, I believe it will allow us to be more intentional with them, as well. We can invest ourselves into understanding what others like and how they are and then motivate them to be better because of those things. With technology always changing and always available, it is up to us to define it differently and utilize it to its best potential.
Novotney, Amy. "R U Friends 4 Real?" Monitor on Psychology 43.2 (2012): 62. APA.org. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/02/friends.aspx>.