by Cecilia Tregelles
Written for College Writing (LARTS 111, Fall 2010)
There is a new phenomenon sweeping America. It’s not a dance craze or a national sentiment. In fact, it’s quite discreet and unassuming. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the “Sidewalk Stare.” I’m sure you’ve seen it. Almost half the people you pass on the street are doing it. It’s not because they’re bashful or feeling in the dumps. Their lowered gaze is the result of that small device in their hand. Yes, it’s a cell phone. They are plugged in to our technological world whether they’re tweeting, texting, or checking their mail. It’s not uncommon, so we hardly give it a second thought. But the “Sidewalk Stare” is having greater consequences than the tops of these lowered heads show. Although the internet appears to bring us closer to the world around us, it prohibits true intimacy in relationships and feeds the selfish desires of the individual.
The “Sidewalk Stare” is a good example of one of the first problems with our constant internet access. The internet allows us to create our own world, one in which we become completely absorbed. This phenomenon is illustrated perfectly in the film We Live in Public. This documentary tracks Josh Harris and his girlfriend, capturing their daily lives on dozens of 24/7 video cameras mounted around their home. The video was streamed in real time online with a live chat feed for people to comment and give their opinions. A month or two into the experiment, what seemed like fun and games at first quickly changed when the couple had a serious argument. Instead of being concerned for each other or interested in resolving the conflict, the couple ran to their respective computers to see what viewers had to say about the argument! Their interest was only in themselves and in the reactions of the virtual community of participants (We Live).
This behavior is not dissimilar to how we live our day-to-day lives. Social networking sites fuel this same addiction to self, creating a me-focused reality. This is not to say that social networking sites or other forms of online communication are bad or evil. In fact, they are a blessing for staying in contact with people we care about; I speak from experience since my twin sister has been in South Korea for almost a year. Given the time difference, I cannot be thankful enough for the opportunity to be in contact with her that the internet provides. But at times, we post something on the internet or “tweet” a comment solely to draw attention to ourselves. The purpose of all of this posting is to see how many people will respond to a post. We eagerly await the messages in our mail telling us that someone has noticed us. The more people that do, the better we tend to feel about ourselves. For instance, we often feel validated by the “like” button on Facebook. Although it takes less than a second to click and no thought at all, seeing the numbers of clicks we have received compared to others is an event to which we look forward.
In one study of 1068 college students, 57 percent said that social networking sites increased traits of narcissism (Borba). Just to name a few, those traits include requiring excessive admiration, lacking empathy, envy, a rather large sense of self-importance, and a sense of entitlement (Long). To hear one of the largest groups of internet users admit to these traits themselves is powerful. When it comes down to it, we want things to be done our way, or for people to agree with our opinions. If a job, opinion, or relationship doesn’t validate our perception of ourselves, we might simply criticize or leave it. This pervading sense of self-centeredness clouds our ability to know what we value in relationships, much like what happened with Josh Harris and his girlfriend.
Additionally, we spend so much time in internet conversation that we no longer know how to maintain face-to-face relationships. Online, it is easy to post a smiley face with a witty comment, but that is all it is: a comment. It is not a conversation. As a result, you can “smile” at someone online but care about nothing about them offline. You can feel like buddies through Facebook or a text message, but you may rarely have a face-to-face conversation with that person. For example, how many times have we left a comment on someone’s wall saying “Happy Birthday” in response to that pesky birthday notification? Likewise, we may comment on someone’s photo when it appears in our news feed although we never say “hi” to them, even if they are in the same room. As a result, our daily relationships rarely go deeper than the surface. We become used to the instant gratification and effortlessness of writing a text or post. But, face-to-face relationships take time, work, and sensitivity to another’s needs, the opposite of internet relationships. Of course, some people do find real relationships on the internet, full of good conversation and ideas. There are even countless couples who have married after their internet meeting. But for as many who have real relationships online, there can be just as many with empty relationships.
The fast technological advancement of smart phones continues this trend. Even when we should be focused on face-to-face interactions, we can find ourselves absorbed in and distracted by our cell phones. Time spent on virtual friendships can leave little time for the real thing. The next time you go to a restaurant, take a look around. You may see several people compulsively checking their phones during dinner. You may also catch several people texting. For older generations, going out to dinner is a chance to spend quality time with each other. But now, some of us who have grown up with the internet go out to dinner and pay more attention to our phones than our dinner partners. If people are not texting, they’re waiting for a reply. As one wife said of her husband, “If there’s one second of spare time, and if you look away from him and lose eye contact, he immediately whips [his BlackBerry] out and starts looking at it” (Rimer). Doing something else while you are listening to a person has traditionally been a sign of disinterest and disrespect. This trend brings up pertinent questions of what is socially acceptable now and how our values grow from those constructs. Is holding two conversations at once acceptable? If so, this is more proof that the instant gratification of the internet sucks us in until we ignore the people around us, once again placing the focus on ourselves.
Social networking sites also decrease our empathy for others and loosen our boundaries of propriety. As we become more wrapped up in ourselves, we become less concerned with the feelings of others. A study of 14,000 college students found that today’s students show 40 percent less empathy than students of the past two decades (Borba). A perfect example of this problem is the story of Nikki Catsouras, a teenager involved in a horrendous car accident so gruesome that the family was not allowed to see her body. Yet through emails, the unsuspecting family was daily confronted by pictures of their daughter’s corpse. In addition, thousands of strangers were now able to see the pictures of their daughter’s body online (Bennett). Disturbingly, the internet allowed people to exploit their daughter’s death. Instead of respecting the family’s privacy, people not only looked at the pictures but also sent them through email and made cruel comments such as, “Woohoo Daddy! Hey Daddy I’m still alive” and “What a waste of a Porsche” (Bennett).
As a result of the anonymity it provides, the internet has created a place where personal feelings can be disregarded and empathy become non-existent. People have the opportunity to say what they want without the slightest regard for the feelings of others. Personal gain may override sensitivity to other people’s situations, even if that gain is the revolting thrill of looking at the tragic photos of a much-beloved daughter. This lack of empathy can be attributed to the fact that we cannot see the other people’s faces. In our online world of “me,” they don’t exist. If they don’t exist, we don’t have to think about how they feel. We lose the ability to put ourselves in their circumstances and temper our actions.
There are undoubtedly benefits to these social communication devices. Texting and social networking allow us to keep in touch with people and in some cases bring people together for greater causes. People can help raise money for natural disasters such as the recent tragedy in Japan or provide emotional support and advice to those struggling with cancer. When social technology and the internet can facilitate these amazing connections, it would be unthinkable to stop their use. The diverse interactions and knowledge of our small world are to be enjoyed. However, if we as a society are not careful, we may be sucked over the edge into the vortex of egos that we precariously approach every time we go online. Life is so much more than shouting to the world what we ate for breakfast. Life is about the relationships we build and the journey we collectively share. If we keep our heads buried in our phones, staring at the sidewalk, we’ll miss the beauty and heartbeat of life.
Bennett, Jessica. “A Tragedy That Won’t Fade Away.” Newsweek. 25, April 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
Borba, Michele. “Youth, Narcissism and Social Networking.” Reality Check: Blogging About Parenting Issues and the Solutions to Solve Them. 2 Sept. 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.
Long, Tony. Narcissism 101. Stephen McDonald: 2000. 1 March 2011. Web. 31 March 2011.
Rimer, Sara. “Play With Your Food, Just Don’t Text.” The New York Times. 26 May 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.
We Live in Public. Dir. Ondi Timoner. IndiePix Films, 2009. DVD.