Balancing online relationships

Social media expose some evolutionary weaknesses in humans.  The practicing of understanding, cherishing others, and appreciation of context, helps to counteract these weaknesses.  Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

It’s not easy to balance your time so that you make the best of all your relationships.  If you live in a hut in the country, with one visitor per week, then decisions might be a little easier.  But it’s perhaps more common to have several layers of relationships to handle: a small circle of close friends; a wider circle of acquaintances; an even wider circle of online friends perhaps; and a still wider circle of people who know of you, or you know of them, but it’s not two-way.

To make matters worse, there are only 168 hours in a week, and 56 of those you may spend asleep.  I guess that leaves 16 hours a day; but that can easily be frittered away staring at a computer, driving, watching a phone or watching TV.


In the last few decades, a huge transition has been made.  The big irony is that the word ‘social’ is often used to describe it.  I guess it is a type of social revolution, but with a difference.  The advent of ‘social’ media means that many people spend a lot of time in a very different type of relationship, with a very different mix of usual relationship factors.


Our evolution has perhaps adapted us well to person-to-person relationships.  In groups, we have advanced mechanisms for adopting groupthink.  This helps us to gel.  In one-to-one relationships, we have advanced mechanisms for reading signals and building joint habits.  This helps us to anticipate and cooperate.


But there are gaps in our billion-year training when it comes to handling social media and wider networks of relationships.  Perhaps the following are the worst weaknesses that have been exposed:

  1. PREJUDICE IN ABSENTIA – We are really bad at overcoming differences with people we don’t have to meet.  We are built to enhance those differences (tribalism).  In a world where we now regularly encounter differences online, we don’t have the equipment to reconcile, and so we all fall out and divide faster than we can recover.
  2. ISOLATED ARROGANCE – We are really bad at being humble with our own views.  We evolved to allow others’ physical presence to dampen down arrogance.  But in a world where isolated individuals can be socially active without being in others’ physical presence, we can all become very arrogant in our own philosophical shells.
  3. LANGUAGE WITHOUT MODERATING EXPRESSION – We are really bad at taking language in context.  We are built to read social signals in someone’s presence, and take language in context.  But in a world of online words, we can all fly off the handle and misinterpret social signals by being very literal about words, and inattentive to people.
THE CONSEQUENCESThe result of the above is perhaps evident in some problems of the age.  The kind of behaviour our online social revolution is creating could be summarised by the following headers and representative behavioural statements:

  1. PREJUDICE – ‘The enemy is incomprehensible or monstrous.’  This is illustrated by the loose use of the word ‘evil’ to describe the behaviour of one’s enemy; also by phrases such as ‘I just don’t understand how they could do that.’  Even quite middle-of-the road people seem to develop extreme views of scapegoat organisations and people.  Instead of realising the traits we all share, we donate ‘bad’ traits to enemies, and ‘good’ traits to friends.
  2. ARROGANCE – ‘The enemy is ridiculous.’  This is illustrated by the loose use of words such as ‘idiots’, ‘stupid’ etc.  Again, instead of being realistic and accepting about the wide variety of possible views, individuals can find a few friends with the same view and insult everyone else with relative impunity.
  3. VERBAL VICTIMHOOD – ‘I can’t believe they said that.’  This is illustrated by the ungenerous literalism that seeks out verbal quotes, and then repeats them out of context.  Instead of accepting that everyone has different styles, online communities can iconise particular ‘enemy’ phrases, and ignore the rest.
AN EXERCISEJust for one day, assume that everyone is the same person, but that nature has played a trick by dividing that one person up into apparently different individuals.  So everyone you meet, whether attractive or unattractive to you, sharing your views or against your views, similar or different – everyone is actually the same person in a different context.

Just for one day, don’t see anyone as monstrous, ridiculous or one-dimensional.  See them instead as natural, important and complex, something to learn from.

It may be that you have been deluded.  You have been seeing imaginary enemy monsters, because you don’t understand different beings.  You have been seeing imaginary enemy idiots, because you cherish only your own mind.  You have been seeing imaginary verbal travesties, because you are blind to context.

Practicing understanding, cherishing others, and appreciating context, are key aspects of compassion and wisdom.  Don’t forget them just because you are online.



Balancing relationships is hard.  The social media revolution has exposed three weaknesses in the human psyche, all related to physical absence: when we cannot ‘be with’ another person, we become prejudiced against them, belittle them, and take their words out of context.

To counteract these weaknesses, we need to make sure we focus on understanding others, cherishing others, and appreciating their context.

If we can do this, then people who seemed to be enemies, can be understood as friends we can learn from.