It took me a while to pinpoint why I felt I already knew some of these people I was meeting for the first time, but then it registered: I had seen these faces on Facebook, on Instagram, on Snapchat.
These strangers, my soon-to-be friends, were already friends of my friends. I had seen their faces, I knew where they were from, I knew who they were friends with, but I had barely had one conversation with them. As a teenager, having a presence on social media calls into question how much of a stranger we are when we first meet someone new.
Now that social media plays a huge part in the lives of millions of people around the world, we are forced to tackle the repercussions of the grey area regarding who falls into the category of “stranger.” When and how do we now decipher who strangers are when information about every person is available online?
In the fall of 1979, when my mother arrived at the very same campus I had just stepped onto, she knew nothing about anyone and had no ability to figure out the vast inter-workings of the small world we live in. After sitting down with my mother to talk about her first experiences at boarding school, I realized how utterly different my experience had been from hers.
When my mother arrived at school on the first day she had only been in contact with one classmate, her roommate. She explained to me that her roommate and she had exchanged one handwritten letter before meeting on that first day. It took them months and many long conversations to learn about each other’s parents, lives, and backgrounds.
After thinking about my mom’s experience, I reflected on my own and realized how much social media has altered the way certain situations happen. I had already exchanged several emails with my freshman year roommate before coming to campus. We talked about sports, our families, what we did over the summer, what we were excited about for school, and how we were going to decorate our room. Because of all this, had we already “met?” Was she a stranger when we met on the first day of school? Or had we already formed a bond?
I find this “21st-century stranger” an interesting concept when factoring in the falsities of online appearances and dispositions. Teenagers dominate the social media world, and we tend to present ourselves differently online than we do in everyday life.
I spoke with a good friend of mine, Chelsea Miller, a soon-to-be senior at Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut. She talked to me about how, in general, “we present an overly confident version of ourselves when we are online.”
“People then face character expectations of the other person when they first meet in real life, but are ultimately unhappy with the day-to-day, real life person. In the end, they prefer the deception that was created online.”
Miller feels that, in the end, this can be injurious to our society and our well-being. While Miller made it clear to me that she believes the most productive way to use social media is to present yourself truthfully, she also stressed what happens in most cases.
“If you begin to create this falsification of yourself online, you start to believe in it more than you believe in your true self, causing people to lose sight of who they are on the inside.”
“If you begin to create this falsification of yourself online, you start to believe in it more than you believe in your true self."
After speaking with Miller, who grew up with the internet, I thought it would be interesting to see how her ideas might compare to those of someone who knew life before and after the internet.
My uncle, Daniel Sallick, 47, is a communications executive at HomeFront Communications in Washington, DC. He spoke with me about how social media has caused people to “curate their own image,” forcing it to be “less about who you really are and who your real friends are and more about who you present yourself to be.”
Sallick revealed an important consequence of social media by saying it has become more about “how you want everyone to see you and less about who your true self is.”
Talking about his childhood, he explained that before social media, people really had to work to figure out who was who in new situations, rather than breaking the barrier with strangers by using social media.
Miller and Sallick, though they are 30 years apart in age, both agree that when using social media, it is important not to skew your ideals, your body, your opinion — anything, really. They both stressed how important it is to stay true to who you are when presenting yourself in a social media setting.
Today, first impressions have started to come from social media rather than from face-to-face interactions, which poses many problems. Now, instead of sitting down with strangers and learning about their lives directly, most people turn to social media to learn information about new people. However, we cannot truly know who these strangers may or may not be; in most cases, we are only seeing one side of them, only getting a single story.
In a TED talk in 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, spoke about the dangers of a single story. While Adichie focused on culture, I think her words speak to great truths about trying to understand people online.
Adichie tells of the single story she had of America, the single story her American college roommate had of life in Africa, and how drastically different their first impressions had been. Adichie saw America as what she had gathered from literature — white, blond, happy, always talking about the weather. Her roommate saw Adichie’s life in Nigeria as impoverished, disease stricken, and lacking education.
Though both conceptions held true in part, they did not begin to scratch the surface of each culture. Growing up in Nigeria, Adichie was raised on a university campus where both of her parents were professors, giving her access to a high-quality education and a middle class home with housekeepers. Adichie’s roommate could not have imagined this side of African culture because of the single story she knew about Africa.
If we are not taught to strive for the bigger, rounder picture, we will never truly understand cultures outside of our own. When it comes to single stories in social media settings, we are presented with the same sort of misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Social media will always be part of our lives, and the key to productive use is balance. The balance is different for each person, but I have found that feelings are more genuinely conveyed when we are actually looking someone in the face. The solution could be to work out a balance between using technology productively and trying to maintain humanity in the relationships we form with strangers.
Social media connects our world like never before, while weakening the bonds of acquaintanceship. Studies have shown that touch offers us far more when it comes to understanding emotions, proving the power of a firm handshake.
Skyler Sallick is in the 10th grade at the Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. She enjoys writing, film, fashion, and academics.
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