Illusion of Connection

The purpose of social media is to nurture your relationships. But most people aren’t intentional about this. The way they use it results in a slow decay, masked by the illusion of connection.

Mutually Parasocial

Social media is what I call “mutually parasocial”. Let me explain.

“Parasocial” is a psychological term used to describe the one-sided relationship between a content creator and their audience. In a parasocial relationship, the consumer develops illusions of intimacy and friendship with the creator. This has become more prevalent with the rise of the internet, given the greater frequency and intimacy of content. In fact, we all experience a degree of this with our favorite creators: YouTubers, podcasters, etc.

Parasocial relationships aren’t limited to creators anymore. With the advent of social media, we have them with our friends too. And they have it with us; hence “mutual”. Think about all the Facebook friends you’ve lost touch with. Yet, you still follow each other separately. This is the illusion of connection - you are merely passive consumers of each other’s lives. In reality, there are no meaningful interactions (no, likes and comments don’t count) to form the basis of a shared relationship.

Here’s an interesting example. I live in the same neighborhood that I grew up in. Many of my elementary school friends still live here too. Though we haven’t been in contact since I was 10, we’re friends on Facebook. As a result, we’ve watched each other grow up… from a distance. I’ll sometimes bump into them and it’s always unclear how we should interact. Do we acknowledge that we recognize each other or just walk by? We usually settle for an odd look of recognition, but then go on with our lives.

It begs the question: do we actually have a relationship? We knew each other then, but we only know of each other now. It regressed. This applies to most of my social network, not just my elementary school friends.

Rekindling Relationships

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re intentional about how you use social media, you can nurture your relationships instead of letting them decay.

The power of these platforms lies in their discoverability and connectivity.

Discoverability lets you find out when your path crosses with a long-lost connection. By staying updated on everyone’s lives, you can see when they move to your city, start working in your field or pick up a hobby that you’re interested in.

Connectivity means you can reach out to anyone. You don’t need their email or phone number anymore. You can directly start a conversation, even with those you haven’t spoken to in decades. Everyone is now reachable.

Put these two together and that’s where the magic happens. Social media acquaints you with old friends and gives you a way to reach out. For example, I used it to reconnect with my boarding school friends when I discovered they were living in NYC. As a result, we formed a bond that’s even stronger than it was then.

Don’t like or comment

It’s important to note the role of social media here.

It’s not an end in itself. If you doomscroll your feeds without having any meaningful interactions, you will develop a parasocial relationship with your network.

Instead, you should treat it as a means to an end. It’s just an entry point. To extract the full benefits, you have to follow through - the only way to foster a relationship is through genuine conversation. You don’t get that through likes or comments.

Next time you’re about to leave a like, think again. If this is a relationship you care to nurture, why not message them instead?

This post took redacted minutes to write.

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P.S: You can find more of my thoughts on Twitter @_suketk.