David Heinemeier Hansson

March 8, 2022

The antidote to social media is being more social

I'm usually not one for coffee appointments or long business lunches, but since the pandemic restrictions were once again nixed a few months ago in Denmark, I've had the calendar packed with exactly such engagements. It's been a revelation.

Part of this came as a result of giving an interview to the Danish magazine Computerworld about getting involved in the local startup scene. Some of it from getting on LinkedIn. But just as much came from simply flipping my default from no/later to yes/now when old friends and acquaintances from the industry reached out.

The first revelation was that no matter how introvert you are, spending time face-to-face with others after prolonged periods of isolation is nourishing in a profound and human way (even if it's also exhausting). And our family weren't even that isolated previously. Neither during the full-on lockdowns (three kids provide their own perpetual motion machine!) nor after we got to Denmark (restrictions were gone much of 2021). Yet still, it was a cocooned life.

The second revelation was just how normal and calm all these interactions and conversations were. No matter the topic. In stark contrast to what appears to be a continued deterioration of social media's ability to do the same. And it's not just because Danes all think the same about everything (they don't; except maybe liking smørrebrød!), but because of the delightful ballet of social graces that would be performed whenever the conversation would land on a topic with a clear difference of opinion.

I don't think this ballet would have registered, had it not been for these long pandemic years. But like if you cut out sugar for a month, then take your first bite of a frosted cake, the experience is vivid and detailed. You notice tastes and textures that wouldn't have stood out without the deprivation.

This conversational ballet incorporates all the graceful ways two people sitting in front of each other can steer a discussion through facial expressions, posture, and pauses. You start going down a path that suddenly narrows as a raised brow reveals a sensitivity, and you either step more softly, or find your way back to another topic. It all happens so effortlessly, so imperceptibly, that most people probably don't even notice.

The irony of now essentially singing a hymn to the objections against remote work is not lost on me. I can easily see how years of severe social isolation, especially for people living alone, could strain or even break this ability to relate to others in a fundamentally human way. If everyone in your life has been reduced to an avatar for too long, the world does become very flat and two dimensional.

Maybe that's part of the answer for why social media in particular has been growing even harder, angrier, bitter, and resentful during the pandemic. It wasn't just, as I initially thought, that the world was uniquely difficult. It was also that, but our inability to integrate those challenges with others, in-person might well have been the bigger problem.

So maybe this is how we break and escape this viscous feedback loop. Where loneliness leads to alienation leads to despair leads to forming desparate virtual bonds leads to tribalism, hate, and a miserable quest for meaning.

There's a reason subjecting prisoners to total isolation for even a few days is considered torture. Even the most introverted among us need human connection. We're hardwired for it. And we'll find it in whatever dysfunctional forms we can, because anything is better than nothing.

I think we may well look back upon these social dark ages of the pandemic as a grand social experiment of microdosing a huge swath of the population with this unique form of isolation torture. No wonder so many self-medicated with social media, overdosed on its partisanship, and now have a really difficult time letting go.

But the antidote is there. It's waiting. It's other people, in flesh and blood, without a mask, without an agenda. May we spread it with the same vigor we vested in the vaccines.