Surface tension

Have you ever scoured Facebook for more posts, more information, more pics, but still felt less fulfilled, less satisfied? Have you seen all the posts there are to see on Google+ and craved for more? How about reading all the headlines (not necessarily articles) on a news site but then yearning for more news to happen?

My theory, is this happens because we are craving depth.

Think back to 2005. Facebook was just becoming a thing, and as with all new things people felt the need to criticize it. Think back to thanksgiving 2005 when you had to explain social media to an older family member. The conversation probably went like this:

Your grampa in 2005:
“This social media is going to make us all antisocial. Nobody talks to anybody anymore, they just post pictures of what they had for dinner. They’re not real friends because real friends are the ones you talk to on the phone for hours and write letters to.”
You in 2005:
“No grampa, social media is a more efficient way of keeping your friends updated. It’s not replacing other forms of talking to people, but it’s supplementing them. People criticized the phone when it first came out that it would stop people from meeting face to face, but look we’re still talking face to face over dinner, aren’t we?”
etc. etc.

Every one of us at some point had to explain social media to somebody who just didn’t get it. Today, the realizations that were so avante gaurde in 2005 are well understood by the general public. Social media is accepted as a way of broadcasting yourself, which combined with direct communications makes us more social, better connected, staying in touch longer, and keeps us more socially conscious. Whereas those who did not adopt social media are left out of events, have trouble keeping track of long-lost friends, and are often seen as so disconnected from rapidly shifting social mores so as to seem bigoted.


But yet there is a subtle point that our curmudgeonly non-adopter did get right. Real friends are those with whom you can have in-depth and meaningful discussion. Social media is made to show a surface, but not to provide depth. Social media broadcasts a highlight reel but it doesn’t provide meaning (nor often authenticity).


And to make matters worse, it has actually diminished our use of other forms of communication. We basically never write letters anymore. We rarely write emails. Some people are still into chat, most are not. We didn’t simply add another communication tool onto our toolbelt. Social media is a communication tool so big, so addictive and time consuming, that we had to make room for it but putting down other communication tools.

Which brings us back to why we are searching for more updates on facebook, and why we’re so unhappily addicted to the surface-level updates from “friends” whom we met once or twice at a frat party years ago. Previous forms of communication did not have teams working on “stickyness” or reasons for you to keep coming back. They did not employ psychology to turn their communication methods into something addictive. Literally addictive. They didn’t have billions of dollars of VC capital to make their communication method pervasive into every aspect of daily life, or have it interact with every element of your daily life. Social media had all of these things and we are now presented with the end result: Internet addiction.

We live stressful lives, so the kind of mindless browsing that social media gives us is more appealing to our brains that it would otherwise. Ironically, the psychology of happiness tells us that having long and deep conversations with a few trusted friends is much more conducive to happiness than lots of small conversations with strangers.

After a long day at the office where we probably wrote some 50 emails, the last thing we want to do is write a long email to a friend. But that’s exactly what we should do if we want to be happy. Email is a long-form kind of communication which you cannot get from chat, or from replies on facebook. In fact, you’re likely to feel guilty for email-length posts on social media. After talking to our clients and our remote development teams on the phone we may not feel inclined to call up our old friend from elementary school. But that’s exactly what we should do if we want to be happy. An hour on the phone with a friend about a topic will help us think through a matter and give us a really satisfying feeling of having talked to a human that we trust. Having shared things with them makes us happy.

Social media is a great form of broadcast communication that everybody should participate in, but it’s just not good for these kinds of deeply fulfilling things. You’re actively prevented from getting into too much depth in social media. The form factor just isn’t conducive to it. The form fields are too small. Long posts are ignored and short ones upvoted. The character limit may even be only 140 characters. Too much is happening at anybody to slow down for something bigger. So if we try to go deeper (as our brains want to do) then we meet this resistance. In science when an object attempts to penetrate something fluid and there is pressure pushing back this is called “surface tension”. I’d like to coin the phrase for this property of social media which prevents depth: “surface tension”.

It’s a fitting name, because social media surface tension also causes actual tension. We feel stressed out by the lack of depth when communicating with our friends. It’s hard to say this is our fault for not using older, more long-form methods of communication, because as we discussed earlier social media is designed to be addictive so that we use it more and use other communication less.

Having discovered and named “surface tension”, I’ve made a resolution to practice more in depth communications with my friends. I’m not going to give up social media or delete my facebook or G+ accounts, that would be stupid. I am however going to consciously keep it proportional to my overall communications (or at least try). The end result I am looking for here is increased happiness. I’ll let you know how that goes.