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Frank A. Weil

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Anomie in a World of Social Media

Posted: 04/24/2012 4:01 pm

Facebook, Twitter and an almost fully-connected world of the Internet, computers, smartphones and cell phones have surely changed how people relate to the world around them and how they feel about themselves.

Some wired people feel reassured that they are part of an ever-larger, albeit synthetic, crowd of friends. Others strangely feel lonelier as they imagine that the legions of people they are connected to do not really "get" them.

More than 50 years ago (long before the Internet), French sociologist Emile Durkheim gave a name to that kind of crowd loneliness -- "anomie." That state of mind was believed to be often at the root of social unrest as well as describing disaffected people who are more than normally susceptible to being misled by misguided people.

So this condition is not altogether new, although the Internet may have amped it up a few notches.

In the late 1970s a youngish Russian couple came to live and work in Washington, D.C. The husband was a Soviet foreign policy expert who worked with a U.S. think tank. His wife was a language instructor. When asked how one could know where their real loyalty lay, she said, "You cannot know for sure. Therefore assume the worst and you can be safe."

She went on to say that in the Soviet Union, at that time, few people had more than a couple of "good" friends. Her definition of a good friend was someone you could absolutely trust with your secrets. Ordinary friends could get you into serious trouble -- even unintentionally -- with the police. Accordingly, people had few friends and many acquaintances.

With today's proliferation of Internet friends on Facebook particularly, things become seriously distorted. People routinely post the doings and pictures of their daily lives for their hundreds or even thousands of friends. It is quite common now for single people thousands of miles apart to "date" on the Internet -- and even marry -- and then meet, with the kind of spotty results one might expect.

Instead of old-fashioned "anomie" today, people are experiencing magnification of their sensibilities both positively and negatively. Human psychological balance is at the root of health, happiness and success. Both the amplitude and frequency of imbalance brought on by modern social media is, or should be, of concern.

No one serious is interested in having governmental rules for how people should manage their lives in the Internet age. That said, it might be a good idea for more reporting of how lives are becoming distorted and helped by the Internet, which might illuminate both risks and opportunities.

 
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