Today I read a couple of blog posts that got me thinking about this question: How do the ways we “socialise” online compare to the ways we (used to) socialise IRL, and what does the rise of social media and other forms of online socialisation tell us about the modern world?

I’m not saying I have awesome answers to these questions. Just that I’m thinking about them.

One of the blog posts began with the question: Why The Constant Need To Document Our Lives Online?(external link) Basically it suggests that the reason many of us post all this minor minutiae about our lives online is that offline, we’re feeling more alone than ever. Obviously the pandemic and lockdowns would be a major reason for this at the moment, but I think it’s a phenomenon that started long before Covid-19 came into the picture. Over the decades I think a number of factors have weakened and weakened the sense of “community” we once had:

  • The decline of organised religion in Australia has taken that away as a source of community for many people. I think that actually, the decline of organised religion is a good thing in most ways,1 but the failure of secular alternatives to church groups, etc. to flourish is a major problem. At least, secular alternatives beyond sports clubs, which aren’t viable options for disabled or even just non-athletically-inclined people.
  • Over the neoliberal period, pressure has been heaped on us to spend less and less time relaxing and more and more time “being productive”. For many people, the 40-hour workweek that our ancestors fought for has been replaced by a 50- or even 60-hour week.2 Additionally, housework and childrearing – what feminists once called “reproductive labour” – still has to be done, and now that many couples have both members working in the paid workforce, the dozens of hours required for this labour are simply tacked on top of their paid jobs. Then, even for those who do have “free time” to do what they like, certain other people act like they’re lazy shits for not wanting to use that time to do yet more “productive” things, like studying part-time, or working a second job part-time, or running a small business on the side of their real job. If you have a hobby, particularly a creative hobby, people press you on your plans to monetise it. Where the hell are we supposed to find time to just relax, let alone hang out in a community, with all of this going on!
  • Australian cities have sprawled as they’ve grown, so people are living further and further away from the family and friends they do have (not even taking into account all the people who move to entirely different cities or even countries from their established social networks). It’s a lot more viable to “just hang out” when you’re a teenager and you and your mates from high school can bike to each others’ houses within 15 minutes… more difficult when “hanging out” involves a two-hour train trip or drive to the other side of the city. On top of this, I don’t think Australia has ever really had a European-type culture of people just hanging out casually at public squares… there are some squares in the city where CBD workers might sit to eat a sandwich on their lunch breaks or whatever, but overwhelmingly people catch up either at their homes, or in commercial spaces like cafés or pubs. I think that this, too, is not conducive to the development of a “community”, where you might actually meet new people and admit them into your social circles just by being in proximity with them regularly and getting to know them almost incidentally.

I feel like I ended up writing these in reverse-order of their importance, but whatever. The point I’m making is, even if the internet had never come into existence, people were already becoming more isolated and atomised IRL. What the internet has done is given people a way to be connected without the need for geographic proximity or extended travel times. In so doing, it’s also enabled a greater level of social connectedness for people who previously could not have just gone out to socialise in their local area – people with disabilities that make it really hard for them to socialise away from home, for example, or people living in areas where they just don’t really “fit in” and trying to socialise there is not a relaxing experience.

The thing is that I do feel that socialising online is usually a shallower and less fulfilling experience than hanging out IRL. I do like commenting on people’s posts, or having them comment on mine, and experiencing that fleeting connection. I have seen people say “you should just blog for yourself, not to try to get dopamine hits from other people’s interactions!” but TBH I already maintain a journal separate from my blog… if I’m going to expend the energy to make more polished, publishable entries, I think it would just be draining if the energy invested in those entries was effectively sucked straight into a black hole of never being seen by anyone. At any rate, it feels good even to have a few people following along, but it is of course not the same as having close, in-person friendships.

Another way that many people socialise online is chatting – one-on-one in a whole range of apps, or else in group contexts like on Discord (or Matrix, or XMPP, or IRC…). When everything lines up just right, I guess I feel like this is the closest thing to that IRL “just hanging out” experience that I think a lot of people are craving. But there are ways that they don’t compare to IRL hanging out, too. Chatting one-on-one textually is slower and clunkier than verbally in-person, and you seem to spend a lot of time staring at the words, “[Friend] is typing…” Video chats are better, depending on the quality of your internet connection, but it’s way less ergonomic to hunch over a little screen than sit back and relax for an in-person conversation. Then as far as group conversations go, it still depends on a range of factors: How big is the group? (Too many people, and it starts moving too fast to stay on top of.) Is the group chat open, and if so, how well-moderated is it? (Nothing worse than some belligerent asshole turning up and souring the chat for everybody.) How able are you to actually find the groups that you’d really “click” with, in order to make those connections? And then I feel like a final factor is structuring your time – like if you have a social group chat open on your computer at all times, making sure you have the discipline to ignore it when you have to (or want to) get other things done, or to go to bed at a healthy hour for your schedule even if others in the chat are consistent night owls (or in a different timezone). In-person hang-outs don’t really present these problems (well OK, maybe the “staying up too late” one…).

Anyway, the second good blog post I read was The Goal Is to Build Community(external link). This was talking about the kind of online social interaction that takes place within smaller communities, like “group chats”, but might also include things like Mastodon-fork instances with local-only posting, Facebook groups, etc. But the key is, as it suggests, how do you turn those interactions into something more meaningful? I guess this is a quandry people face IRL too – I have known many, many people (and have been one of these myself) who have many friendly acquaintances but no (or not many) real “friends”, someone they could call on to help them move house or invite to their wedding, etc.. How do you turn friendly acquaintances into friends? In the past, this is what ongoing, prolonged proximity helped us do, but for the reasons I went over in my list towards the start of this entry, this is happening less and less now – and is even more difficult to achieve online.

I generally consider myself an introvert, and the majority of my hobbies are pretty solitary pursuits (writing, web/computing “stuff”, reading, gaming…). Still, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I wouldn’t be happier spending less time on a computer, and more time immersed in a community that really “clicks” with me and my values, like I dunno, some kind of anarcho-socialist collective. (Even though anarchists and socialists can have all kinds of personalities, and not all of them would “click” with me.) Like, would it be more fun playing tabletop games with a group of easygoing lefties than playing single-player games on my own? Probably. Would it be more fun sharing and workshopping stories with like-minded storytellers, and ultimately publishing them freely in a society with no profit motive, than it is to slave away without recognition on a manuscript that feels like it’s never going to get done? Yeah, almost certainly. But being able to do these things actually requires finding that community (…and that fabled society with no profit motive) first, and that’s the challenge, isn’t it. Digital socialising with like-minded people at least comes somewhat close to that.

So, to try to bring this post back to where it began: Why do I share what happens in my life online? Well, probably for similar reasons as what makes me follow/read so many blogs and Mastodon accounts and so on: to expand the range of people I know, read interesting posts that come from all kinds of different perspectives and experiences, and have more social connections than just what I have IRL. So, am I getting what I want to be getting out of my online interactions? …yeah, I think so. There were a few years there where most of my social media use was just as a lurker,3 a habit I’m glad to be breaking now. I participate in the community on link), which has a really pleasant, thoughtful atmosphere, and I also have some good exchanges on Mastodon. I guess you could say these are largely surface-level exchanges, more on the level of friendly acquaintances than anything else. But that’s OK. I mean, it’s not like I’m closed off to the possibility of establishing good friendships online, either – I did when I was younger! And I don’t think there’s such a thing as having enough good friends. I guess I’m just happy having some nice exchanges and reading some neat things on the internet 🤷🏻‍♀️

Longer-term, though, I am looking forward to getting out of the house and catching up with people in person again (once the lockdown is over, once we inch our way back to some semblance of normalcy…). For the reasons I mentioned, online interactions just can’t fully substitute for that (for me). And you know what sounds particularly fun, now I’ve written this entry? Trying to find some left-leaning group of people to chill out and play board games with 😆

  1. I realise this is probably a contentious statement to a lot of people who are involved in organised religion and do think it makes a positive impact on their lives… I don’t mean to cast shade on that or deny that there exist progressive strains of religion (liberation theology within Christianity is cool for example), I just mean it’s pretty good that institutions like the Catholic Church have waaaaaaay less influence on Australian politics than they once did (even though the Australian Christian Lobby, which represents probably a one-digit percentage of the one-digit percentage of Australians who regularly attend Christian services, still has too much influence 😒). ↩︎

  2. With renumeration still based on the 40-hour ideal, although – and this is kind of a side point – I think it would be horrible to legitimise these 50–60-hour workweeks by simply increasing salaries to match them. This is what even the “progressive” media commentators seem to think should happen with teachers, for example. Better idea: reduce the workloads of existing workers and just hire more damn people to get the work done! ↩︎

  3. Can I be honest that it really sucks that we now live in a world where you’re supposed to have this ultra-sanitised digital trail or else it’s your own fault if, like, teetotaling or socially conservative employers overlook you for jobs? I’ve hit this point now where I don’t care any more (it’s not like I do anything really bad!!) but man, the expectation fucked with me for years. ↩︎