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The illusion of virtual company

Following my sophomore year, I spent a summer in D.C. working for the Pentagon. Occasionally, my supervisor would let me off early, and I would find myself sitting alone by our capital’s marble monuments, scrolling through Instagram, checking my Snapchat, and reloading my email, waiting for a notification or two to keep me busy. Normally, I’d scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, but the safety orientation at work had pressured me to deactivate my account for the duration of my stay in D.C.

During our first week of work, all interns were made to take part in a presentation on operational security. We were warned that our supervisors could monitor our social media activity, and any online references to our work could land us in serious legal trouble. The presenter pointed to cases of interns being contacted via Facebook by foreign intelligence agencies and unintentionally compromising state secrets. Given my proclivity for communist jokes and the abundance of foreign nationals on my newsfeed, I subsequently decided to deactivate my Facebook to prevent misunderstandings between my employers and myself. Consequently, I was left with two social media platforms—Instagram and Snapchat—to communicate with my friends from home.

One Friday afternoon, having left work early, I decided to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. Being the dork that I am, I took pictures of every plane and plaque, overwhelmed by the historical beauty surrounding me. However, nature’s call grabbed my attention midway through the Word War II aviation exhibit, and I soon found myself shamelessly destroying a Smithsonian toilet. As I sat on my porcelain throne, I swiped through the various photos I had taken, debating which one to share on Instagram. Sadly, no single photo could do justice to my complete photographic collection, leaving me mindlessly scrolling as I tested the strength of Smithsonian plumbing.

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After four or five minutes of scrolling, I was struck by an unusual pang of self-hatred. Why did I care to tell the world that I had seen a German Focke-Wulf 190 with my own eyes? I had never felt the need to validate my love for historical artifacts when I was younger, so why did I feel as though I needed to prove to strangers that I had done something fun that Friday afternoon? Thus, in an odd moment of historically-induced frustration, I deleted my Instagram account, flushed the toilet, and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the exhibit.

Later that evening, as I awaited the bus that would take me home, I opened Snapchat, the sole social media platform left to accompany me. As I sat on the bus, I once again felt a pang of personal frustration. I had always complained about lacking time for leisure readings and calling my loved ones, and yet, there I sat again, wasting my evening looking through the lives of familiar strangers. Arriving home, I deleted my Snapchat, threw myself on the couch, and stared at a phone devoid of notifications.

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As the days turned to weeks, I occasionally felt an anxiety induced by my cold turkey withdrawal from social media. I watched as others around me scrolled and swiped away, feeling a sort of virtual isolation from the outside world. Nevertheless, I learned to cope with my self-imposed virtual exile, eventually transforming my anxiety into a sense of relief. Instead of playing an endless game of virtual catch up, I grew comfortable with silence and enjoyed more personal time. I read for fun, wrote letters to random friends, practiced Russian, and—for first time in years—took pictures for the sake of having pictures for my future self.

Early August marked the end of my time in D.C. and subsequent return to Facebook. As expected, my newsfeed remained a cesspool of rude comments, worthless opinions, and photographs of individuals I barely spoke to. Although I contemplated doing away with Facebook completely, a few long-term projects forced me to recognize Facebook Messenger’s organizational utility. For the time being, Facebook was here to stay.

We’ve been deceived by Silicon Valley into thinking that its platforms can grant us happiness. The truth is, we’re mortals with an ever-shrinking amount of time left on earth. As such, time remains the most valuable commodity you can give to a person or cause. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat create the illusion that you can simultaneously remain connected with everyone. However, time is an investment; if you cast your net wide and invest your time in a sea of strangers, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by nothing but virtual likes.

Upon commissioning in May, I intend to delete my Facebook. Perhaps sometime after completing BOLC (Basic Officer Leader Course), I’ll make a new account and craft a useful newsfeed. I don’t want to see long-winded political opinions, mild memes, or pictures of that guy I kinda-sorta knew in middle school. What I care to know is which of my closest comrades are moving, getting married, having kids, or returning from deployment. When I look at my future friends list, I want to be able to say that I’d go camping or grab a beer with any of them at a moment’s notice. I want to be able to boast that, despite my seemingly meager list of Facebook friends, I’d be willing to fight tooth and nail for each and every one of them. I don’t want a tool for social validation or a source of likes; what I really want is a warm virtual reminder that, despite physical distance, my closest friends are always there.

Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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