While Facebook, Twitter and the rest make billions from our hardwired cravings for human contact, the deep bonds that truly nourish can only be found offline.
When I joined Facebook, I said I’d never join Twitter. Its users either posted the dull minutiae of their lives (Just ate a bowl of pasta #Yum) or they were pseudo-gurus who typed pithy banalities in 140 characters of textspeak (Do wot u do. Bcos no1 else is u).
When I joined Twitter, I promised never to see the point of Instagram. Why did anyone need to see pictures of my sweaty torso after an hour in the gym? I’m now settling into the habit of uploading photos of my dinner onto the world wide web: #instafoodie.
Snapchat is still the final frontier. Except there is no final frontier when it comes to social media: there’s always the next wave, the next platform, the next app. It seems we have evolved to crave the kind of social contact that social media now satisfies. That’s according to research by Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, whose findings were reported this week. Our brains, he contends, “have evolved for us to be social animals”.
But are our cravings for human connection really satisfied by social media? Are we not like hungry men told to make do with bubblegum instead of food? We simulate eating: we chew, we swallow saliva, we taste the sweetness in our mouths – but our stomachs remain empty.
When I go home to Nigeria I am fascinated by how, in so many ways, the country is living through a time of extraordinary and rapid change. Nigeria has one of the largest online populations in Africa, and so millions of its people are on social media. We have celebrity bloggers, Twitter “overlords”, who are courted by politicians because of their tens of thousands of followers, and tech startups mushrooming in areas such as the Lagos suburb of Yaba. The #bringbackourgirlsmovement for the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok began on social media.
Yet at the same time, millions of Nigerians don’t own any form of computer and are not on the internet. This means you can still move fluidly from an online world to an offline one. I discovered what this means in practice last year when I went to my ancestral village. It was cruelty to expect a person born in 1991 to go for five days without the internet. What was I going to do?
Interact with people I knew, perhaps, instead of conversing with strangers behind cryptic handles and dim profile pictures. I was forced to ask questions instead of scrolling through photos online. I didn’t need an emoji to know whether a person was joking or if they were sad. I could hear it in their tone and read it from their body language. I could use the part of my brain developed to take social cues from another human being, not another username.
When I got back to Lagos I was gasping for the internet. But I missed my time in the village and, when I came back to England, I missed it even more.
My generation supposedly lives online – for us, engaging with others on social media is a full-time preoccupation, if not an addiction. But increasingly I miss the absence of quiet spaces. The web has even followed us underground with Wi-Fi now at many tube stations.
Social media companies grow richer every day from gathering the clues we drop while trying to indulge our craving for human connection. They know what food we like, what clothes we buy, and what songs we listen to. And they sell them back to us.
And what do we get in return? A cheap simulation of community when there are real communities to be made with the flesh and blood around us. We are encouraged to form weak ties with strangers and acquaintances, wispy threads that snap at the slightest pressure. There’s something unsettling about it all. We were made for deep bonds, for intimacy, for family – not WhatsApp chat groups.
I’m far from being a Luddite. I won’t be going off social media anytime soon: after all, 2016 is the year of #fitfam (people supporting each other’s fitness goals). And how can I give up the entertainment of drunken celebrities baring all on Twitter?
But I am starting to re-evaluate the amount of time I spend on social media and the quality of interaction I gain from it. Some things can only happen offline: holding hands, running a marathon, hugging, walking a dog with my neighbour, kissing, dinner with my friends.
Life’s deepest experiences are beyond the reach of a broadband signal. There will never be enough likes, memes, retweets or status updates to replicate the simple, ancient chemistry of two people breaking bread together while one asks the other: how was your day?