A Theory of Social Media Emptiness


This week, I was reflecting on the appropriateness of using social media to express sympathy for the death of a friend’s father. Part of it, I freely admit, is just my old-fashioned streak that longs for bygone ages, but I think I may have discovered a shortcoming of relationships by social media.

Think about a significant life event. To make it a little more cheery, let’s think about the birth of a child. Then, consider the “social reinforcement” of this event by the couples’ family, friends, and acquaintances. By social reinforcement, I mean some sort of feedback from these three groups of people.

So, our happy couple has a baby. In our social media age, within a few hours of delivery, either the new mother or the new father will post something on social media to announce that the awaited day has arrived and to give the pertinent details. This post will probably include a picture of the new baby in the mother’s arms (unless she had an especially taxing delivery, and then maybe in Dad’s arms). This is likely the simultaneous notification of family, friends, and acquaintances that the birth has occurred, though depending on proximity, some of the first two groups may have been notified earlier that the birth was imminent.

Once this announcement is made, everyone has a chance to “comment,” “like,” and “share.” Most of this will occur within the first few hours after the announcement, though may continue for up to 36* hours as the ripple effect of friends of friends liking and commenting works its way out and catches those who only check their social media once or twice a day.

By the time mom and baby are ready to come home from the hospital, the social support has run its course. Now, tangible support may come from a parent, sibling, or friend who comes to help for a few days while mom recovers, but that is all, unless there are subsequent posts to social media.

Now, let us consider the same scenario 40 years ago. The birth is the same, but “notification” occurred much differently. Local family and friends may still have received a call saying, “We’re headed to the hospital.” After the birth, once it was “business hours,” close family and friends would have received phone calls. Other friends and acquaintances would have found out in the following day or two as the husband returned to work and word of mouth spread the news.

Within a week or two of the birth, birth announcements would be sent out to friends, family, and acquaintances. This would trigger replies from at least some of these people by way of letter or card. Depending on mailing times, this might last for another week or two.

Under this second scenario, the “social reinforcement” could still be occurring up to a month after the event. While this is nice for a birth, for events like the death that triggered this reflection, that ongoing support can be crucial. The experience of well-wishes and sympathies would be much more protracted.

If our social reinforcement occurs within 36 hours for all of our life events, even the most life-altering events seem to have less social significance, which in turn makes us feel insignificant. The ability to instantly communicate paradoxically reduces our communications to an instant.


* I did a little unscientific research by looking at my “most popular photos of 2015” on Facebook and all of them received all of their comments within 36 hours of posting.


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