There is an old adage that says, "God should give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us."*
Some people might say, "Heaven forbid" to such a concept. "I do not want to know; it might stunt my style and take some fun out of my life." Others would undoubtedly embrace the idea, thinking "Golly, I need to know how others see me if I'm to get along with folks better."
The fact is, with rare exceptions God (or whoever is in charge of those things) did not provide for much of that kind of insight or reflection. And, that is where today's world has a problem that has been magnified by social media.
It used to be that most people had a circle of people who knew them quite well through a normal life span - perhaps 100 to a few hundred folks. Today there are about one billion Facebook members (one out of seven people on the planet.) Many of them have several thousand "friends." The chances of distortion of perceptions of individuals, for better or for worse, have been increased enormously. That leads to two questions:
1. What really constitutes a "friend" in an era when friendship no longer requires physical proximity to spawn?
2. Are most people really better off believing that they exist in such a large, supposedly intimate world of friends who really cannot know much about them?
The emergence of the "friendship" question also extends to the political arena. When we select our leaders in business, government and civil society, how can we rely on our perceptions of those people, who offer themselves as our leaders, if those perceptions have been filtered to us through the distorting lenses of advertising, social media and even old fashioned news sources? We cannot, objectively, "know" in any meaningful way, the people who would lead us, and frequently people end up settling on one leadership candidate over another for reasons remarkably similar to the way we have come to define friendship in the early part of the 21st century.
What constitutes a friend? Obviously there is no single answer where one size fits all. But perhaps most people would agree that a definition should include the qualification that a real friend is someone you could truly depend on to help you in an emergency, even if it was a major inconvenience to them. Another requisite in most cases would be someone whom you could trust with a personal confidence. Or, it might be someone whom you have known reciprocally through thick and thin and who knows your flaws as well as your charms. Lastly, friendship, though it may be a passing thing, mainly does not truly happen overnight.
So, what are all the other folks whom you may call "friends," who do not pass these tests? They are, of course, simply acquaintances whom you may know and remember and even enjoy at work and play. The distinction will become increasingly important to a smoothly functioning social system.
Are most people better off believing they have a very large circle of "friends?" Probably not. At best, a very large group of "friends" creates an illusion of support and popularity, which in most cases probably distorts peoples' view of themselves as well as the so-called friends.
An amplification process can lead to serious distortions in peoples' lives. For example, politicians, who are by definition always seeking new friends, rarely hear anything other than "you are great," "keep it up" and "I agree completely," leading them to believe that everyone loves and agrees with them, which leads them into all kinds of trouble.
The very rare politician has the ability to remain objective about him/herself. Most lose touch with reality in the bubbles which inevitably surround their public lives, leading to leaders' megalomania.
Not only politicians have become isolated by bubbles. Everyday people have created their own bubbles by watching only the TV that already mirrors what they believe and think. As a result they are rarely exposed to neutral or contrary thoughts and ideas. Fox owns the conservatives, MSNBC owns the liberals, and CNN struggles for the rest. It used to be that many people read two papers or watched two news sources to try to stay in touch with the whole world out there. Since some 40+ percent of people regard themselves as independents, hopefully CNN might sell itself more aggressively in that light. The narrowing of focus of large swaths of our population cannot be healthy for our democracy.
How can modern society adjust to the perceptive distortions which have been magnified by modern communications and social media?
A quick answer is not available, but a more serious answer first will involve increasing awareness of the issue. It appears that very few people have ever given the topic much thought.
There obviously is no turning the clock back. One idea on the personal individual level might be to introduce a new word into our language to distinguish between real friends and simple acquaintances; for example today there is a word creeping into everyday talk, frienemies, to categorize friends who have turned sour. Perhaps frientances might capture enough people to enable individuals to distinguish and to scale back their problems with too many friends.
As for choosing our leaders, we need more opportunities to see them in action outside of their bubbles. One way to do that would be for more debates to be organized in such a way that all candidates would sooner or later reveal their true selves. Another way would be to encourage more one-on-one encounters with interviewers who are beyond 'fear or favor' and who would then post those interviews on YouTube.
The starting point of dealing with perceptions and misperceptions is to be more aware of the serious issues that arise from the interaction of modern society and the individual. It's well past time to get started figuring out who your friends really are and what kind of a world they want to live in.
*Robert Burns, Critical Analysis of To a Louse
Oh, that God would give us the very smallest of gifts. To be able to see ourselves as others see us. It would save us from many mistakes and foolish thoughts.