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Digital Social Climbing?

Popularity and personal interactions in the age of social media

Published

By Dom Galeon

(DIS)CONNECTED In a peculiar way, social media has bridged divides but has also made new ones.

(DIS)CONNECTED In a peculiar way, social media has bridged divides but has also made new ones.

In a conversation one afternoon, my editor mentioned that he found it strange that people he would bump into along the halls of our office would avoid eye contact with him. It’s an observation he’s previously made, a couple of months back, and he even wrote an article about it for his weekly Sunday magazine column. What’s even stranger, he added when we revisited this topic of social awkwardness born perhaps out of genuine shyness or a misplaced sense of respect for authority—which does not excuse the said social awkwardness—is how some of the same people who avoid any contact would add him on Facebook.

Curious, isn’t it? Why add me in social media when you won’t even just say hi or hello, he wondered. I offered an answer. Maybe they add you just so they can say, “Look, I’m friends with a famous person.” I said that in jest, but there might be some truth to it. In all likelihood, it’s a phenomenon that’s true in many other offices, and there are various reasons a person tends to be socially awkward. After all, it takes much less social effort to be digital acquaintances than to be real life friends.

Social media climbing

There’s really nothing new about that, since social media has undoubtedly redefined “friendship” into a list of names of people you can bother once in a while if there’s a green dot beside their names. What’s striking, at least for us during that conversation, is how social media seems to have given birth to a virtual kind of social climbing, which is no less real.

Let’s call it social climbing 2.0. Like its original version, this digital social climbing involves wanting to be associated with popular personalities. But a part of it also involves that mad dash for having more followers or garnering hundreds, if not thousands, of likes for every single post. Everyone wants to be a viral sensation nowadays.

Famous personalities online, those with a blue badge beside their names, are usually popular even outside the realm of the virtual. They are also more accommodating when it comes to being friends with people online.

On the other side of this online social dynamic are, well, the ordinary people like you and me. It’s not exactly wrong to want to be friends with someone who is popular, sure, and it also doesn’t hurt to be associated with them since social media has made that relatively easier. On the contrary, there’s a certain feeling of elation that comes with having a famous personality acknowledge our existence, even if just digitally, as if their fame rubs off on us. Add to this that sense of popularity whenever our posts get dozens of reactions. I remember a friend who once told me that if his post doesn’t get any reactions after five minutes, he takes it down. It is unfortunate that this digital social climbing has become part and parcel of our online existence.

Socially disconnected

Many have settled with just being connected online, forgetting basic social behavior that we all learned from the very first moment we were exposed to other people. You greet them, you say hello or good morning or good afternoon, and you look them in the eye and smile as you do so. Now, we just wave at people digitally. At least that’s better than “poking” them, so thank you, Facebook, for the improved social media etiquette.

Greeting other people appears to be more difficult for Filipinos, as some of my friends have pointed out on more than one occasion. When you go to other countries, particularly the West Coast of the US, they said, it’s quite normal to see people greeting strangers they meet along the way. We’ve been told, growing up, not to talk to strangers, so when a stranger asks how we are today, our immediate, instinctive reaction is “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Be that as it may, whenever I greet people with a smile, I notice that they tend to smile back and return my greeting with a curt hello or hi or just simply wave their hand in acknowledgment. It even works when you’re on a bus and you wave at people out on the streets, lounging by the sidewalks. Try it, but don’t overdo it.

Maybe we’ve all been social (media) climbers at one point. I admit I’ve added some famous personalities in the past. Some of them accepted the invite while others ignored it. That doesn’t really matter because I’m probably never going to meet these famous folks in real life, but I’m sure to meet the hundreds of people who work in the same place I do. I bump into at least a dozen of my workmates every day, and I can choose to lower my head and avert their gaze, pretending to be busy with my phone or other such nonexistent distraction, scurrying along the corridors like a social pariah, or I could acknowledge their presence, offer a warm smile, say a polite hello, and maybe even engage in small talk.

Unlike the famous people whom we wish would notice us, the people we meet, like those whom we work with every day, already do. Look them in the eye the next time you see them in the corridors of your office. It’s much simpler than sending a friend request and getting rejected.

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