I know that plenty of people are worried about the perils of getting sucked into the online world of social media, and with good reason. I just didn’t expect such a thoroughgoing repudiation by a group of graduate students in psychology.
They were in a course I was teaching at a local university. I don’t teach there regularly, so I did not know any of the students before the course started. A few of them were studying social media for their dissertations, so their objections were sometimes based on the social science research as well as their personal experiences.
Some of the students had simply deactivated their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and all their other social media accounts, and walked away. They told me it hasn’t cost them anything in their real friendships and their relationships with the other important people in their lives. They still talk to them and get together with them, without leaning on social media to stay in touch.
I completely agreed with some of their concerns. If your first reaction to some great travel experience or moment from your life is to wonder how it will play on social media, to anticipate the likes and the shares, then you could miss out on the pure joy of just savoring your life, in an unmediated way. You might actually get less joy out of those special moments. You could also end up disappointed that more people did not respond to your post, when that should have nothing to do with the fulfillment or meaning that your life experiences offer you.
And yet, I think there are real gifts that the online world can offer that are not always routinely available in our everyday offline lives. One is the gift of understanding, if you are a person who is different from a lot of the people around you. Maybe an aspect of your identity makes you different, or maybe it is a particular experience you have had that hardly anyone else has, or a special interest, or an unusual challenge. You can try to talk to friends, family, neighbors, classmates, or coworkers, but chances are, they are just not going to get it.
In his new book, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, Elyakim Kislev wrote about the Facebook group I started in 2015, the Community of Single People. What makes that group different from so many of the other groups for single people is that it has nothing to do with dating. We are mostly people who are single because we want to be, or even if we are ambivalent about it, we still want to live our single lives to the fullest. We talk about every aspect of single life, the good and the bad, except for attempts to escape single life. We don’t do “poor me, I’m single – how do I get out of this?”
We need international groups like the Community of Single People, Kislev believes, because it is still hard to find local groups for single people that have nothing to do with dating. Is that because most single people really are more interested in dating and escaping single life than anything else? Kislev thinks not, and I agree. The problem comes from “the struggle to gain legitimacy in societies preoccupied with marriage.”
People who like their single lives are sometimes reluctant to say so. Saying that you are miserably single and pining to be coupled is what is expected. And, as studies show, it is also more often rewarded. Other people like singles better when they say they are sad about being single than when they are happy about it.
You may live in a place where there are plenty of happy single people, but few who will fess up to it. Online, in a group such as the Community of Single People, you can find 3,000 other people who may be a lot like you.
When you think about posting in a group like that, you don’t get to be motivated by the anticipation of all the shares your post might get. You won’t get any. It is a closed group. But you might instead be motivated by something far sweeter and more lasting – the likelihood that other people will appreciate you and validate you. No one in the group will think it is weird that you like your single life. No one will tell you to “put yourself out there” so you can meet someone who may be spouse material. No one will think that the only life accomplishments that really matter are marrying and having kids; we share and acknowledge and celebrate so many other personal achievements, large and small.
I don’t say all this because I think that the group is perfect and I want everyone to join. If you were thinking to yourself as you were reading my description that the group sounds like family, in the best sense, in some ways you are right. But families come with disagreements and squabbles, and we have those too. We often talk about personal experiences of singlism — the ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against. There are always people who dislike those discussions. Some of them post snide comments, then leave in a huff. But for those of us who like those conversations, the group is a special place. There are far fewer people inside the group than outside it who respond in arrogant and dismissive ways to discussions of the ways in which single people are still second-class citizens.
Getting to talk openly about things that make so many other people uncomfortable: that’s one of the important psychological benefits of online communities. It is one of the reasons I am not following the lead of my grad students in closing down my accounts, even though I know they are right in claiming that there would be benefits to doing so.