Since the 1870’s, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that the technological revolutions played an essential role in human history economically, socially, and politically speaking, and also through the impact on human perception and mentality, as well as on people’s way of lives. The discovery of iron, the invention of the wheel, typography, dynamite, electricity, automobiles, and, recently, the invention of audio- video technology one by one have had a great impact on the perception of space and time, on human memory and communication, on power proportions, and finally, on attitudes and mentalities. Changes are not neutral. They always imply a benefit, but not rarely an irreconcilable loss for a man, for humanity. Thereby, when facing an invention we should first ask ourselves what changes it will produce in our lives: whether or not we lose more than we gain through its implementation; what are the limits of these inventions; which of them can keep themselves in a neutral frame?
No technology in human history ever extended so much in such a short period of time, as social networking. Only Facebook, although it appeared 8 years ago, has already over 1 billion users. For some people, Social Networking Service (SNS) is a means of publicity, for others, a means of marketing, and for the secret services it is an ideal tool to collect information. George Orwell never dreamed that Big Brother could so easily convince people to supervise themselves and their lives in order to afterwards post about them on the internet. Anyway, those who take advantage of these networks economically or informationally are very few in comparison with that billion users.
However, what happens to the common users who are striving to make life a little bit happier inside these networks? The advantages are obvious: Information Sharing, Convenient Communication, Self-Expression, Friendship Formation, and Social Support. There are also a variety of distractions, such as uploading pictures, viewing profiles, videos, and photos of friends; chatting with friends and playing games. Beyond these advantages, are there any risks concerning the excessive use of these means of communication and socialization?
McLuhan noticed that some traditional functions will be more or less amputated, because of the dependency on new technology. For example, the automobile amplifies the effect of the locomotors organs, replacing them almost completely. Its effects are weakening of the feet muscles, affecting the spine, as well as weakening the heart etc. This leads to the misuse of the human body as a whole. Therefore the amputation is proportional to the time dedicated to the interaction with that means, and to the degree to which this replaces our own organs and powers, physical or mental. Does SNS, and Facebook in particular, submit to this law?
In a survey conducted by Eastern Kentucky University researchers, they discovered two of the so-called paradoxes of social networks. Firstly, although these networks are so popular due to the possibilities they offer to people to communicate with the others, they lead, in most of the cases, to a feeling of loneliness and isolation. Moreover, the feeling of intelligence or efficiency that SNS induces at first is followed by a feeling of ignorance or ineptitude. Thus, the study proves that McLuhan’s law has a great degree of aplicability, indeed. Research has proven that chatting on the internet does not improve face-to-face communication, but establishes itself as a substitute to personal communication. Therefore, a virtual world replaces the real one, and communication skills atrophy as being unneccessary.
Moreover, it was noticed that Facebook especially attracts those with lower self-esteem, in order to contribute to raising its levels by displaying separately taken fragments of life (often embellished with Photoshop, etc.) and clicking the notorious “Like” button. “But “friendship” in these virtual spaces is thoroughly different from real-world friendship. In its traditional sense, friendship is a relationship which, broadly speaking, involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific social (and cultural) contexts. Because friendship depends on mutual revelations that are concealed from the rest of the world, it can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy; the idea of public friendship is an oxymoron”. It is completely different in an online world. With time, a user becomes more and more a prisoner of the way his image or video is reflected in the eyes of other, often unfamiliar, people. Facebook and similar platforms create a new fragile personality, which needs permanent validation from followers. In order to catch the eyes of others (it becomes a necessity that grows more and more), you have to keep a high self esteem, you must permanently invest in this image. Thereby, social networks create a competitive environment, in which every person presents the attractive side of their life to gain the attention and the appreciation of others. Often, “Facebook would lead one to have the false impression that others’ lives are better and consequently experience negative social well-being and emotion”. Research conducted at Nanyang Technological University pointed out that “comparisons mediated the relationship between Facebook browsing and individual social well-being and affect. That is, the better they perceived their friends’ lives than theirs, the more loneliness, lower life satisfaction, and more negative emotion they experienced”.
Facebook produces significant changes in what we call the private sphere and even in the intimate spheres: love, friendship, and family. This happens because the general trend of the social network, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself declares, is the fact that The Age of Privacy is Over. Few realise that what fascinates and captivates people in the space of such social networks is easy access, more or less, to the private sphere or intimate sphere of other people. Of course, self-disclosure in social networking sites is a freely agreed act, but we should keep in mind that this type of communication leads to the temptation to gradually reveal more and more information about private information. The fact that this information will be used in marketing research is a serious problem, but even more important are the effects self-disclosure will produce on our intimate life and psychological health. There are already studies which prove that Facebook can seriously affect friendship relationships or romantic love through creating or amplifying jealousy.
All of these psychological mechanisms that social networking sites promote lead to dependency. This is due to the fact that people, when escaping loneliness, feel more appreciated when they are online, than in real-world communities, thereby, becoming more and more connected to virtual communities. Therefore, researchers identified a new clinical disorder: social network addiction.
Of course, it is hard to point out the effects of an environment that has only existed for a few years. Research is still in its beginning stage. We cannot tell what the long term effects of online socialization will be, because a decade since the birth of SNS has not yet passed. Some researchers talk about the amplification of social isolation, the growth of anxiety and depression; others are worried about the replacement of the traditional friendship with an online one. Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, affirms that social networks will produce major changes in “rewiring” the brain. “This can result in reduced concentration, a need for instant gratification, and poor non-verbal skills, such as the ability to make eye contact during conversation, stimulating the environment”.
Indeed, SNS creates the global village sooner and more precisely, than McLuhan could ever imagine, but it depends on us, whether we choose to be a part of the virtual world or to maintain our private and intimate sphere, living within a family, a community that appreciates the sun light, the smile of a child unimmortalized in a photo, a friendship and a love that do not depend on the artificial structure of virtual spaces and are undisturbed by anxiety caused by discovery that someone has unfriended them.