An online generation in isolation

Credit: Katrina Williams

Katerina Triantafyllidou
Writer

Making friends at university is tough enough as it is, but has it become harder since social media took over our lives?

Picture this: you’re walking down University Avenue, excited for your very first day of university life. Look at all these new people! You’re nervous, but at least you’re not all alone in this. You’re now standing in front of the building. You walk in and wait outside the lecture theatre. And… there’s no one there. Something is wrong. Maybe you mixed up the buildings? Well, at least the lecturer showed up. The lecture begins and ends and you were all alone the whole time. Has no one else taken this course? You leave the building and see people again. So many of them! Laughing and talking to each other. Where were they?

At this point, I should probably say there were people waiting outside the lecture theatre. So many of them that there were hardly any free seats. But apparently, there is no big difference between literal and metaphorical absence. Apart from two or three students, almost everyone else was staring at their phones. These few minutes before class seemed longer than the actual lecture.

Everyone starts their university journey with certain expectations. Almost always these include forming true friendships, but things have changed and we’ve changed with them. Communication is an activity, just like playing the piano; it requires practice. Where older generations used to socialise for the biggest part of the day, we end up spending most of our time alone, whether we are surrounded by people or not. We have forgotten how to communicate with each other. We even refer to social interaction as “awkward” or “difficult”. Of course it is: it requires skills and effort but, most importantly, the willingness to step away from ourselves and show actual concern for the people around us. And there is no doubt that our society is only focused on the individual. It’s what we want that matters. Our goals and desires. Luckily, our multiple devices have been designed to serve us without asking for anything in return, and the ads we see on Facebook are targeted towards our very own personal preferences. Apart from the latter being creepy, if you think about it, the whole world seems to be revolving around… you! It is a very convenient illusion and it’s ruining our lives. Thanks to our bright screens, we are experiencing illuminated isolation. One of our most fundamental needs, the willingness to be a part of something bigger than us, has been distorted.

Many people don’t have any friends and many of those who do feel isolated. Students often post anonymously on online university communities (see: Glasknow) about feeling lonely or unable to fit in. There’s nothing wrong with these people: it’s just that not having friends has become the norm. Not only for university students, but for adults and even children. Those who really feel fulfilled and content with their relationships are the exception.

Friends have become something similar to an accessory. You need them to attend any event or, if you choose to go alone, you’ll end up feeling miserable. You take photos together and share them on social media. We are using our friends, and they are using us, because this is what we have been taught to do. Anything without an immediate purpose is just not needed. But relationships don’t work that way. Suffice to say, under these circumstances, they can never be genuine, no matter what label we put on them.

The fact that we have become so attached to inanimate things, such as phones or laptops, is worrying. The use of these objects as substitutes for the sense of community is scary. Consider course chats on messenger or any other platform: these people you talk to are studying the same course as you, so you probably share at least some of the same interests. But, how many of them have you had a real-life conversation with? Do you say hi when you see them in class? Can you even recognise them from their profile photos? Do you sit next to them? Obviously, you may know some of them. But then again, are they your friends?

We have to think about what we really want from our lives and personal relationships. Times are changing fast but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same needs and desires. There is no person, even the greatest pessimist you can think of, who doesn’t need love, understanding and friendship.

We do not necessarily need to exist. But when we do, we need someone to observe us existing. We need people around us who know our real selves; what we like and dislike, our beliefs and ideas. This is the way we are made. Sharing your opinion as a tweet among millions of other tweets cannot even be compared to talking, laughing, or arguing at a dinner table. I can’t promise you will gain any followers. But then again, you just don’t need them.