Faced with unprecedented technological innovations, global integration and a pace of life so accelerated you have to hold onto your seat, Generation Z — which generally encompasses kids born from the mid-90s up to the early 2010s — is often regarded as the ‘guinea pig’ generation when it comes to growing up with modern technology. We were still young children when a virtually infinite wealth of information was laid just within the reach of our sticky fingertips. Accordingly, some have nicknamed the constituents of Generation Z, also called Gen Z, “digital natives.”
Of course, as the impact of technology has naturally trickled into multiple veins of society, these effects have been and continue to be widely studied. Researchers have published information about everything from echo chambers, to the bursts of dopamine prompted by Instagram likes, to exactly what makes cat videos so addictive. Studies relating to the effects pertaining specifically to Gen Z produce simultaneous pity for our deteriorating mental health, praise for our rising numbers of youth activists and ridicule for our eight-second attention span. But something that often eludes the conversation about the implications of technology, and more specifically, of social media, is how relationships maintained solely through social media will fare in the future.
It’s no secret that social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat (though the latter perhaps to a lesser extent) have established this hyper-connected world where we maintain a new sort of “relationship” by following someone and subsequently seeing and interacting with their posts. Relationships that, just a few decades ago, would have had fleeting glory before quietly withering away — old summer camp acquaintances, friends of a friend we met once at a big get-together, even former high school teachers — are now sustained and crystallized in the amber that is the digital world. A few swift thumb flicks to scroll through our feed, and we’re all caught up: so-and-so graduated from high school, someone else’s older sister just had a wedding, someone else had a crazy milkshake from the Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beers in SoHo.
Social media posts are self-cultivated snapshots into the lives of people we knew at some point or another, ambivalently staged and intimate. When it comes to closer relationships or extended family, it’s a fantastic way to beat the distance game and stay in touch. However, many users don’t necessarily have such personal relationships — at least not anymore — with many of their followers.
So what will happen 10, 15, even 30 years from now? Granted, some people will likely gravitate away from social media with age, while others may have never found themselves overly involved to begin with. Despite occasional exceptions, we’re the first generation who has developed a habitual usage of social media from the time of childhood. Thus, for the vast majority of us who do have some form of a digital presence, the aforementioned bizarre zombie relationships put forth some unique questions. What does this newfangled, enduring, hyper-connectedness mean for the social structure of society and the way social networks evolve? Do social media and its users pave boundless paths to new opportunities, or do they allow the ghost of our past self and past life to haunt us indefinitely or both? Will we be 40 years old, yet still following the Instagram of some random girl who told us she loved our earrings in some grimy bathroom at a frat party?
Fortunately, some of the potentials for clunky future awkwardness may be partially assuaged by current social media usage trends and predictions. For one, amid rising concerns about social media users’ privacy and data, experts say we can expect an increase in the 2012 term “Dark Social.” While its name may seem indicative of something foreboding and ghoulish, Dark Social refers simply to web traffic coming from users sharing content directly and privately with one another, rather than posting or sharing it publicly — for example, emailing a link to a friend instead of posting it on Facebook. In other words, if the center of people’s social media habits and interactions shifts from the public to the private eye, perhaps our primary digital social circles will shrink in size. The need to share an article will increasingly be fulfilled by a few copy-and-pasted text messages rather than a public post.
With this comes two other factors: first, the sharing of personal content is on the decline on many platforms. Take the example of Facebook, which had experienced a 21 percent drop in personal updates in 2016. Instead, users gravitate toward sharing articles or memes. Additionally, exploitative tactics used to target human psychology and maximize social media’s addictiveness have become increasingly exposed, with time lending itself to curiosity about the modus operandi of tech corporations. Documentary-drama hybrid “The Social Dilemma” is the latest exposé encouraging the public to persist in tugging the cloak off of tech giants. As a result, many companies have already begun adding features intended to curb excessive app usage, such as helping users keep track of the time spent on their devices and its apps — plus, experts say we can continue to expect more improvements in the future. Perhaps, then, users will feel less tempted to scroll through their feeds in the future, inhibiting slightly odd interactions with acquaintances-turned-strangers even further.
Nevertheless, the future of social media largely bears resemblance to waters filled with ones and zeros in the deepest corners of the ocean: murky, dark and unknown. There’s no guidebook for any of it. Perhaps there’s some benefit in clutching onto optimism in the face of uncertainty as the world of technology perpetually zooms forward, dragging us behind it — or, perhaps it’s best to theorize about and mitigate the potential effects of the worst changes yet to come. In the meantime, maybe there will be some unimaginable, really wonderful things that will emerge from these weird, intimate social media relationships that refuse to die. Perhaps the initial contemplative awkwardness will give way to warm friendliness that waits just around the corner. In any case, there isn’t much to do except wait and see.
May Braaten is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.