Social media: it feels like we know more, but do we actually know less?

By Lauren Keenan

It often feels like I know much more about other people since the advent of social media. I know what some people have for dinner each night. I know what holidays they go on, and what sort of travel photographer they are. I know who gave who lives in Candy Crush. Some days, it feels like I’m drowning in the inane minutiae of other people’s lives. On those days I tell myself I’m going to break up with Facebook. I think about all of the hours I’ve wasted reading about other people’s lives when I could have been more engaged in my own. That’s it, I’ll say. No more Facebook for me. I’ll just read this one more post …

Other days I read about a new baby being born, or see pictures from a friend’s wedding that I couldn’t attend. I see a meme that makes me laugh, I follow a link to an interesting article I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and have a Facebook chat with a good friend. On those days, I am glad for Facebook. On those days, Facebook goes from being a frenemy to my BFF. I can’t quit, I think. It’s how I find out about friends that I don’t see all the time, it’s how we interact.

Then I found out via Facebook that a friend had died. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years; while we were from the same hometown, we lived in different countries. We had also been colleagues, but that was on the other side of the world. If you’d asked me a week ago if I’d heard from them recently, I would have said yes. We’d swapped messages not too long ago, and ‘liked’ each others’ statuses. They’d sent me a message to update me on the gossip not that long ago. It didn’t feel that long ago.

Thing is, I found out they’d died after their profile picture on Facebook was changed to a picture of a gravestone, with a date of death from last year. And I’d had no idea. So, it turns out, the recent Facebook interaction wasn’t that recent at all. It was three days before they died, over seven months ago. We were friends, but not close enough for anyone to let me know they had passed away. It had been put on Facebook at the time, but I had missed it.

I thought I knew too much about people due to Facebook, but now I realise that there is even more I don’t know. It’s as if social media creates an illusion of closeness due to how frequently you can read other people’s news and see their photos. But, in most cases, that’s all it is. An illusion. You can’t know how happy someone is, or what’s going on in their lives. You don’t know if someone’s just separated from their partner, or lost their job. You don’t know if someone is sick. Most people don’t post stuff like that. We post the pictures of lying on the beach, not the hour spent in a passport queue. We post pictures of the biscuits we bake with our kids, not the children crying because the biscuits came out the wrong shape, or the dishes we have to do afterward.

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