Every time we look down at our phones, we look away from someone’s face. We substitute a real interaction with a virtual one. Our society is so deeply transfixed by the technological realm that the extraction from such an obsession seems almost impossible. It’s almost like everyone has wandered into a dark tunnel, and don’t care to find their way out. That dark tunnel is constructed by social media, and it’s blocking us from truly seeing and experiencing the real world around us, rather than the virtual one.
That virtual world, the world of Instagram likes, Facebook stalking, and retweets, has sucked the life out of human interaction and become a toxic parasite within each of us that gives in to it. Eye contact has become a foreign entity that is avoided at all costs. We as a people have developed an aversion to each other. We do not make eye contact or pleasant chitchat on the subway, we dread the thought of sitting next to a Chatty Cathy on an airplane. We prefer Facebook stalking as a method of getting to know someone more than an actual conversation with the person. People have lost the ability to comfortably be within themselves without filling every empty minute with piles of social information.
In 2014, the summer after my sophomore year of college, I studied abroad in Italy for five weeks. I lived in an apartment in the heart of Florence with six other female students from all over the United States. Penny was from New York. Shameen was from Boston. Christiana was from Georgia. Catherine was from Texas and Laura was from Kentucky, but they both went to the University of Alabama together. Jamie was from Wisconsin.
Before I left for Italy, I went through the process of upgrading my cellphone to an iPhone 5S specifically so I could use it overseas. But as I found, unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi, you can’t use any applications that would usually require cellular data – including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or most other apps for that matter. The cost of texting was astronomical unless you waited for Wi-Fi connection to use iMessage or apps like WhatsApp. That being said, Wi-Fi is slim throughout many parts of Italy. It can be found sparingly within restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels. The only reliable location with Wi-Fi connection was in our apartment in Florence. As a result, my iPhone, instead of being a wonderbox smart machine, was mostly just a regular phone used to call people.
I had to fly across an ocean to realize that we are quickly losing the affinity to look each other in the eye, to have a raw human connection with someone devoid of cell phones and smart devices, and because of this, we are losing the ability to truly be happy. People pay less attention to what is physically in front of them, and more attention to the screen in front of them. As we’re looking down at our phones, we’re missing our own lives passing us by in front of our noses.
We spent our first night in Italy at the Hotel Astoria, a four-star hotel in the center of Florence with huge cathedral ceilings and marble pillars. The hotel housed dozens of us who had just arrived for the program; many of whom had never been to Italy before - including myself. For most of our very first afternoon in Italy, we all sat amongst couches and on the floor of the hotel lobby, staring at our cellphones. The talk was largely limited to who had cellphone reception and who didn’t, and which corners of the hotel had the best Wi-Fi connection.
Instagram FeedA snippet of my extensive Instagram feed from the five weeks that I was posting photos of Italy
As our virtual interactions grow more expansive, our in-person relations whither to almost nothing. We need real connections, actual human relationships in order to experience the full weight and benefits of the pleasantries of another person’s company. Sharing photos on Facebook and tweeting at each other on Twitter is not the same as actually spending time together. The third weekend in Italy, I went to the Amalfi Coast with a group of friends. You had to pay for Wi-Fi at our hostel. Jamie from Wisconsin fell asleep in bed holding her phone above her face.
I am no innocent here – I have sold my soul to social media just like the rest of us. I feel like I’ve grown up on the edge of two worlds: pre- and post- social media. As a 90’s baby - before the age of iPads or the popularity of touchscreen phones - the first decade or so of my life was kept fairly pure of any and all social media; I spent my time building stick forts outside, catching frogs in ponds and rolling down hills. When I went to a restaurant with my parents, the main source of entertainment was building sculptural works of art out of my meals or having foot wars with my older brother. For the first decade of my life, I had no idea what the Internet was.
But during those five weeks in Italy, I skipped nights out to the bar, ditched dinner with my friends early and held back from going on site-seeing activities so I could make time to Skype with my boyfriend from back home in New Hampshire. I was acutely aware any time we entered a Wi-Fi zone throughout Italy, so I could pick up my phone and text him. I had a horrible case of tunnel vision; completely oblivious to the fact that as I stared down at my cellphone, I was missing out on the time of my life. I put so much effort into Instagramming, that I wasn’t even paying attention to what I was supposedly experiencing in said instagram posts. I spent five whole weeks living in Florence, and every day on my way to class, I walked past the Florence Cathedral. I never once went inside, but I posted plenty of photos of it on social media.
Florence, ItalyPosing for a photo next to the Florence Cathedral on my last night in Italy - during my five weeks living in Florence, I never once went inside the cathedral.
Thus, the latter half of my life has been a snowball of social media – Myspace, then Facebook, then eventually Formspring, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram, YikYak, Fade, Pinterest. Allow me to admit that in the past five years, it would not be far fetched to claim that I have spent more hours on social media sites in one sitting of a single day than I spend outside for an entire week. And I have felt the gradual effects, like everyone else who has caught the social media sickness. In such heavy doses, social media is a depressant.
We create false identities for ourselves online – false identities that we can never live up to. We fine-tune every post to curate the perfect life for others to see – to show how happy we are, how adventurous we are, how successful we are. And we forget that the person behind those posts is just a person – they have bad days, they have known loss, they can feel pain. The lives we display online are not real, but nevertheless, we see the “joy” had by other people, and we wish we could be as happy as them. You see a photo on Facebook of one of your friends smiling with their girlfriend or boyfriend, and you instantly wish that your relationship was as “perfect” as theirs. Nobody posts about the fights, the tears, the breakups.
When I went to study abroad in Italy the summer after my sophomore year of college, I flooded my Facebook and Instagram pages with updates on the amazing places I was going and the amazing things I was doing. But I never shared anything about how miserably homesick I was, how I counted the days until I could go home, or how I cut my trip two weeks short. All of my friends just saw that I was having an amazing time, and expressed how jealous they were. I wish I could have lived up to experience the happiness I was posting about on Facebook, but real life just doesn’t work that way.