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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Column: Lost in cyberspace

In many ways, humans are de-evolving, or adapting to habits that serve little benefit. The fact that we are basically sedentary, as opposed to our perpetually moving cavemen ancestors, is only one example of this.

But another way we might be downgrading is through the Internet’s embodiment of a space in itself. Before the Internet came around, we were better at living in the moment, attentive to the nuances in our external surroundings.

Nowadays, however, when one enters the kingdom of the Internet, cyberspace uproots actual space. Conversations around you begin to tune out, the walls and the posters in your room start to blur and it would probably make little difference if your cushy bed were indeed a bed of tarantulas, enmeshed as you are in the world within an 8-inch by 12-inch screen.

The consequences of such a reality-upheaval are numerous. In particular, Facebook has made it so that mini feeds and “status updates” puncture the process of moving on after a break-up or truncated fling.

The site has a way of remembering people you click on the most, thereby broadcasting their information more frequently in your mini feed. The obvious downside to this is that people who were once very meaningful to you continue to bombard your newsfeed every time you log on.

Given this, I assume it was much easier for our cavemen ancestors to get over their exes. They’d maybe shed a few tears, bang some stones together and let out a series of forlorn grunts before being forced to move on and hunt more wild animals with their heads held high. Can you imagine what it would have been like if Facebook were around at that time? Our muscled friends would be laying on their chests, recklessly clicking through photos, sighing, pining and letting their dinner run away while their chiseled muscles slowly atrophied. Such prolonged self-sabotage may have even killed them off eventually.

Though our ancestors could not afford to engage in such self-destructive actions, we have both the privilege and the curse of being allowed to wallow. Not only does Facebook enable us to keep clinging on, but it can lead us to make erroneous assumptions. 

For instance, when you’re looking at an ex’s page, you are merely looking in on their life as a voyeur, stressing yourself over what may or may not even be true. (Who’s to say that a smiling picture means they’re happy without you? Maybe they just lifted the corner of their lips for one fleeting moment before going back to their room later that night to cry about how much they missed you.)

Also erroneous can be the impressions we have of a person; particularly an ex or an unrequited love. Facebook makes it easy to put the idealized person on a pedestal, constructing an inaccurate fantasy version of them that is often remarkably discordant with its in-the-flesh counterpart.

Garry Trudeau’s cartoon “Doonesbury” pokes fun at this discrepancy between the groomed Facebook page and its actual owner. Addressing her friend at the table next to her, the girl in the cartoon remarks, “My Facebook page has become ridiculous! It’s this place where a perfect, overcurated version of me lives. A place where I’m accomplished, happy and attractive. Even my professed faults are endearing! Who is she? I don’t even recognize this person!”

The page floats out there in cyberspace as a potentiality, a positive caricature of a nuanced individual, usually either reduced or exaggerated but hardly ever spot-on. The more you look at their manicured page, manipulated to align with their ideal self, the more you’re wrongly convinced that they’re perfect.

Reckless Facebook use can mess with your psychology for all these aforementioned reasons, but it can also just flat-out mess with your productivity. Timothy Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University, described it as “a cesspool for staying caught in the past, fixation on a former love and festering jealousy over an ex’s new beau.”

Pychyl, who has done extensive research on Facebook and self-destructive behavior, found that students in his lab spent one-third of their time procrastinating when they were supposed to be working on an academic task. He attributed their behavior to the human need for feeling connected:

“There’s a powerful pull to be connected to others, but we have other needs as well, many of which get neglected when we’re sucked in to the social networking site,” Pychyl said.

So take a look up, scan your environment and drag yourself out of the cyber milieu if you’re losing sense of your tangible world. What’s inside the computer need not transcend the screen and become a part of your surroundings.

ELENI STEPHANIDES can be reached at estephanides@ucdavis.edu.

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