I was already concerned about the impact of technology on social connections. As I wrote about in Kill Process, there is an epidemic of loneliness in the world, and most especially in the US. But in the face of the global pandemic, our lives have been further irrevocably altered. The way we work, socialize, and even entertain ourselves has been reshaped by necessity.
The pandemic accelerated our reliance on technology, pushing us into an era where our screens became the windows to the world. Social media platforms became our town squares, our coffee shops, and our living rooms. We’ve seen a surge in the use of Zoom, Teams, and Slack for work, while Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Discord have become the go-to places for social interaction.
Yet, this shift has complexities that further exacerbate the dysfunctional trends that have been brewing for years. As we’ve moved our lives online, we’ve further substituted real human connection with digital interaction, leading to a sense of isolation and loneliness for many. The pandemic has amplified this effect, with social distancing measures making it harder for us to maintain our offline relationships, and indeed, even our skill at managing and maintaining those relationships.
We can see this in how the pandemic has created lasting changes in how we socialize. Making plans with others has become more challenging, with cancellations becoming increasingly common. Post-quarantine, there seems to be a growing reluctance to spend a lot of time texting, even among those who previously enjoyed this form of communication, leading to further isolation. One possible explanation for this shift could be a collective realization of the limitations of digital communication — the pandemic, by forcing us into isolation, may have made us more aware of the qualitative differences between online and offline interactions. But I think that misses the mark, personally. I think it’s more likely to be a subconscious resistance to pandemic behavior. Just as we were eager to get masks off and deny the horrors of quarantine and job loss and long Covid, so too, I think people wanted to leave behind texting.
That’s not to say that social media and messaging don’t have serious limitations. They do. Several years ago, I experienced this difference firsthand. I was grieving the end of a relationship and feeling a lot of distress. I reached out to friends for support via social media and text, engaging with many folks at length throughout the day. However, these interactions didn’t substantially change or improve my feelings. But when a friend came over in person for a short 45 minutes in the evening, my mood dramatically improved. I felt happy and connected, no longer sad or grieving. This experience underscored for me that a single in-person interaction, even of limited duration, can have a more profound impact on our emotional well-being than an entire day of digital messaging.
In my novel Kill Process, I delve into the world of Tomo, a fictional social media company, through the eyes of Angie, a data analyst. Angie’s experiences echo our current reality, highlighting the dangers of over-reliance on digital platforms. She grapples with the ethical implications of social media, particularly how it can be manipulated to control and influence users.
Since the publication of Kill Process in 2016, real-world events have further underscored these concerns. For instance, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 revealed how personal data from millions of Facebook users was harvested and used for political advertising, illustrating the potential for misuse of user data on social media platforms. More recently, the rise of deepfake technology has shown how social media can be used to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion, a theme that resonates strongly with Angie’s journey. And even more recently, ChatGPT and other large language models have made us realize just how little we actually can trust, and how much can be faked.
The pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront, as we’ve become more dependent on these platforms for connection. Angie’s journey serves as a reminder that while technology can bring us together, it can also drive us apart if not used responsibly.
As we move forward, we must strive to find a balance between our online and offline lives, using technology to enhance our relationships rather than replace them. This has been the promise of social media for a long time, but we’ve failed so far. It’s up to us to figure out how to use this power responsibly to build a more connected and compassionate world, even in the face of adversity.