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A Word of Caution on Virtual Communities

By Maria Keselj
Maria Keselj ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.

From the moment college became a digital experience, the term “virtual community” has become a staple with administrators, clubs, and teaching staff. Considering that the desire to connect with people is so central to both the college experience and our human nature, it is clear that maintaining and improving these virtual communities when no alternative exists is essential.

But virtual communities must be approached with caution. With evidence emerging about unusual fatigue and cognitive overload caused by hours of Zoom meetings, constant notifications, and perpetual use of social media, it is important to consider how virtual communities must be created around standards of self-care. Indeed, it is unfortunate that at a time when we most need communities which transcend geography, these virtual spaces could be extremely detrimental to well being if done incorrectly.

The overuse of online spaces for social interactions has been shown empirically to have detrimental effects on mental health. For the past decade, psychological research has demonstrated that addiction to internet and social media use affects 6 percent of the world’s population and is biologically similar to substance or gambling addictions. Considering that this problematic usage occurs when “social networking is viewed by the individual as an important (or even exclusive) mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression,” the risk of social media addiction is greater for many of us now than it has ever been before.

Though a social media addiction may not seem particularly serious on the surface, it can have serious consequences. Social media addiction has been linked to poor job performance and burnout, low self-esteem, low life satisfaction, and high stress levels. Particularly dangerous for students, extensive use of social media creates a perceived time distortion. When most students are not on campus to receive the usual physical cues from peers, professors, and the Memorial Church bells to enforce their schedule, the academic and personal ramifications of this time distortion during a college experience in isolation have the potential to be devastating.

However, issues with purely online communication are not just limited to addiction; there are other various subtleties to virtual communities which negatively impact our mental wellbeing. An example is notification fatigue — a feeling which anybody subscribed to a house or dorm email list has surely experienced at some point. A constant influx of notifications has been shown to desensitize individuals to the impact of notifications, lessening their efficacy over time, causing information overload and fatigue in the short term, and pushing a reduction in usage of the platform. Despite the common sense which suggests that more messages will most effectively communicate information and create a feeling of connection, it can have the opposite effect of dissuading individuals from their social platforms altogether.

The pandemic has also brought to light struggles with new online platforms like Zoom – the term “Zoom fatigue” has been coined to describe the unique exhaustion which results from hours of video calls. Unlike the typical weariness one feels after a long day of work, Zoom fatigue results from the inability of video calls to convey non-verbal cues, the mental intimacy of prolonged eye contact, the stress of seeing oneself on screen, and the higher level of attention needed to avoid distraction.

The nature of communication on Zoom is fundamentally different from the communication we have spent our lives learning norms and skills for, down to organizational methods and the distribution of content. Considering that Zoom and similar platforms are the foundation of all virtual communities nowadays, it is necessary to recognize that the goal is not exact replication of our in-person communities, but adaptation to our new circumstances.

With notification fatigue infiltrating messaging platforms, Zoom fatigue infiltrating video calls, and addictive time theft infiltrating social media, there seem to be no good options for maintaining communities and connection while avoiding these adverse effects. Any online platform will come with flaws, as is the nature of attempting to digitally replicate a college experience which was never meant to be online. The uniquely difficult position of administrators, clubs, and professors – who are doing the most to make the best of a bad situation – is not to be understated.

However, perhaps even just becoming more aware of these risks can lead us to use digital spaces in a manner that is respectful of the impact it has on others and on ourselves. It is clear that everybody reacts to the new standards of online communication differently, ranging anywhere from having a preference for digitalization to experiencing an exacerbation of serious mental health struggles and the creation of behavioural addictions. With knowledge of these possibilities, perhaps we can begin to think twice before sending the ninth copy-pasted email pubbing a club or creating frequent mandatory attendance socials.

This pandemic has separated us from each other and introduced us intimately to the throes and nuances of virtual communities. These communities lack the standards, cues, and coping mechanisms we have spent decades curating for physical interaction. Virtual communities are necessary to the college experience for at least the next year, but we must think harder about their boundaries; virtual communities help keep us safe from the coronavirus, but we need to use them carefully to make sure we remain truly healthy.

Maria Keselj ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.

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