Social media filters relationships whether we like it or not, and new neuroscience research shows we’re increasingly drawing less of a distinction between real and digital interactions.
A little more than a decade ago, a former professor of mine here in Paris was supposed to meet Jean Baudrillard at a party. The notoriously elusive French philosopher rose to fame in the early 1980s with his theory of the “simulacrum,” which says that neither reality nor history really exists anymore because consumer society and media have taken away true freedom and choice and replaced them with mere illusions. His theory was the inspiration for The Matrix films.
When Baudrillard did not show up at the party, the host rang his assistant, and it was determined that at the last moment he had decided to stay at home that night. Apparently, he had found a channel that was showing reruns of Wheel of Fortune. A few years later, when Baudrillard was giving a reading from his book The Conspiracy of Art at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan, an audience member asked him, “What would you like to be said about you? In other words, who are you?”
Baudrillard paused, then replied: “What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.”
For Baudrillard, there was no difference between his real self and his mediatized self, just as there was no difference between an interaction with friends and interacting with the television images of an American word puzzle game. We are all, according to Baudrillard’s theory, simulacrums of ourselves: fake humans living in a fake, mediatized world. In a mediatized world, the theory goes, real relationships are impossible.
Yet now, seven years after Baudrillard passed away, we have created entire personas mediated through online platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etcetera. But we use these mediatized personalities to connect with other people. Even if we are watching Wheel of Fortune alone at home, if we are simultaneously tweeting at a friend then the night is still a social one.
The question, then, is whether these relationships in the virtual world are still the same as relationships pursued in the real world or is there a fundamental difference, as Baudrillard would have claimed? Can we still call love “love” if it’s passing through a screen?
For the past decade, Paul J. Zak, a professor of neuro-economics at the Claremont Graduate University who sometimes goes by “Dr. Love,” has been conducting studies on how relationships maintained over social media differ from relationships in real life. What he has found is that there’s hardly any difference at all.
“It’s as if the brain doesn’t really differentiate between you posting on social media and you being there in person,” he told me. “We’re such hyper-social creatures that we have a large release of dopamine when we’re with other people. But we can also get that release through Twitter or any social media, really.”
Zak recounts a test he ran with the journalist Adam Penenberg, asking him to engage his Twitter followers for 10 minutes. Penenberg used the time to respond to a few strangers’ tweets and to make a 122-character joke about the way his GPS pronounces words. Zak tested Penenberg’s blood both before and after the exercise, and found that in just those 10 minutes, Penenberg’s oxytocin levels rose by 13.2 percent and his stress hormones decreased by about 13 percent. Zak told me that the oxytocin boost Penenberg got from this mediated social interaction was similar to what a groom experiences before his wedding.
In the most extreme such test, Zak recorded a 150 percent increase in oxytocin in a South Korean man who spent the allotted 10 minutes posting to his girlfriend’s Facebook page.
“It was just off the charts.” Zak said, “Most people have an increase of 15 to 20 percent. It was just crazy. But all people—100 percent—we have tested all had an increase in oxytocin from using all kinds of social media.”
People with more friends tend to get sick less often and even tend to live longerthan people with smaller social circles. And the conclusion Zak has come to is that social networking can not only reduce many of the health risks associated with loneliness—notably, heart attack and stroke—but that the brain interprets using Twitter or Facebook in a nearly identical way to speaking to someone face-to-face.
Yet amidst all this good news, it’s possible that the connectivity that social media allows could be too good. Some research suggests that, as if on a sliding scale, the more engaged we are with people online, the less engaged we become with people in real life, which, ironically, makes us even lonelier.
Romance and social media seem to mesh well in the courting process, but, as Russell Clayton, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, found in his new study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Twitter use can cause a burnout effect in romantic relationships. When a couple is spending all of their time on social media, they might not be spending as much time with one another. Or maybe, if they’re posting about their relationship issues on social media, those issues can snowball. Last year, Clayton found similar results for Facebook users, and in both studies, high social media use by both partners was a strong predictor of infidelity, breakups, and divorce.
What Clayton did not touch on is the possibility that the safety and convenience of mediated relationships could overshadow face-to-face relationships.
Japan is the most Twitter-using country in the world on a per capita basis. About one in three Japanese people who have an Internet connection use the service. Japanese is the most tweeted language after English and the top five most active accounts on Twitter are all based in Japan. Japanese characters, which can carry long, complex connotations, also mean that Twitter’s 140-character limit is not as constraining as it is for Anglophones and users who speak other Germanic and Romance languages. Yet Japan has recently become one of the loneliest countries in the world (if you equate “loneliness” with “being single”), where 61 percent of unmarried men and 49 percent of unmarried women aged 18 to 34 were not in any sort of romantic relationship—a 10 percent increase from just a decade ago. In fact, one in threeJapanese people under 30 reports never having dated at all. Maybe Twitter provides an alternate source of oxytocin for some of these single people.
In fact, in a turn that would make Baudrillard smirk, one of every three millenials says that “virtuality is reality,” meaning that they draw no distinction between what happens online and what happens in real life. And 39 percent of people aged 18 to 34 say they use Facebook with the purpose of finding sexual or romantic relationships. Online flirting is real flirting—the goals are the same.
Earlier this year, Neil Parris, a 35-year-old California native who works in film and TV partnerships for Google, launched an Instagram account, where he posted 42 pictures tracking his relationship with his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, Jenna Caine, an account executive at a luxury lifestyle management firm. The 42nd and final picture posted to the account was a picture of the sunset at Coachella, the California music festival where they had first met. In large, black letters over the photo were the words “Will you…”
Here, Parris created a simulacrum of a wedding proposal. He didn’t have to do anything (except kneel, at the end) when proposing: The images spoke for him. His proposal—one of the most important moments of his life, we can probably assume—was mediated through a phone application.
But the stunt worked—Caine accepted his proposal. Whether we choose to call love “love” if the flames are sparked on Tinder, the fire stoked over Facebook messenger, and the proposal done through Instagram, no longer matters. Everything, even our most intimate moments, are caught up in a web of things that speak for us. But at this point, there seems to be no going back: You can either deny that your life is orchestrated through various media or you accept it. Either way, love has been Twitter-ized.
© 2014 Cody C. Delistraty, as first published by The Atlantic.