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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

False intimacy on social media



Fake friends, fake relationships that get portrayed as real in the virtual realm

Social media has undoubtedly connected us in ways that we never really could have imagined, bringing our day-to-day activities to the forefront of our virtual community. We know where a friend of ours went on vacation this summer and which resort he or she stayed at, even if we haven’t talked to them in person for ages. This has led us to form connections with various people in a virtual world, where social interactions are frequently limited to just liking or commenting on a friend’s post. We are witnessing a false sense of intimacy on social media, in which we have multiple friends or followers but aren’t acquainted with or rarely interact with them.

Many of you might be surprised if I told you that most of our friendships on Facebook are fake or meaningless. Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, found that out of the 150 Facebook friends an average user has only 15 who could be counted as actual friends and only five as close friends, according to research he conducted on how Facebook and real-life friendships co-relate. This means that only 10 percent of our friends on Facebook are real friends. An even lower percentage of those friends are close friends.

“There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome,” Dunbar wrote. “In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.”

Therefore, even though contact on social media prevents a friendship from completely dying out, occasional face-to-face interactions are required to keep a friendship alive. The term “friendship” has kind of lost its relevance in this day and age, when a person having hundreds of Facebook friends isn’t actually close with the majority of them.

In the 1890s, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov observed that every time he rang a bell (which was used to signal meal time), his dogs would salivate — whether food was brought to them or not. Similarly, recent research has shown that people have more brain activity anticipating a reward than actually receiving one. In this case, when we get a notification on our phone, we create — or anticipate creating — intimate relations with the person who messaged us rather than forming productive relations in real life. We aren’t any different from Pavlov’s dogs who salivated when they heard the bell sound, as every time we hear the ping sound from our cell phones, we view at it as a sense of belonging with someone on our friends list. For many of us, the mere thought of being friends on social media is sufficient, so we don’t try turning that idea into meaningful friendships.

This notion of intimacy has taken over couples as well, and some of them even use social media to eradicate any speculations regarding their future. The couples who share the most on social media are often just seeking reassurance about their relationship from others, and this is done to mask their relationship insecurities. Here, we observe a false sense of intimacy constructed intentionally to make their relationship seem more stable and similar to how it was in its nascent period.

We should also keep in mind that two people can be best friends without being connected on social media, and numerous relationships would never have been possible if there was no such platform where strangers could interact with such ease. But substituting social interaction with a virtual platform where one’s bond with somebody is determined by how many mutual friends or followers they have may end up being detrimental for a friendship. We may form a new perception of who our true friends are based on how much they like or react to our posts.

We refer to social media platforms as a virtual universe and thus we need to make a distinction between real and virtual friends. We should make sure that we don’t become so immersed in the online world and reach a point where differentiating between the two universes becomes harder day by day. Being open about our lives online is in no way problematic, but we should recognize where to draw the line, as we may sometimes be giving a false sense of intimacy to people whom we don’t consider to be our actual friends.  


Written by: Kanwaljit Singh — kjssingh@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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