I’m starting to realize that the reason my Instagram and social media usage has grown more problematic recently is because I’ve been using digital interaction as a substitute for real face-to-face interaction.

When I think back on living in Hawaii, having hundreds of friends and acquaintances I saw on a daily/weekly basis, I had a very active social life. Even after the whole covid thing started, I still lived in a dorm with 15-20 people that I knew, so there was no time that I was truly starved for social interaction. This is in stark contrast to my life in Taiwan. Here I live alone, have a handful of casual friends or acquaintances outside of work, and have no close friends that I see often. I also use my phone and social media much more here than I ever did in Hawaii.

The reality of my life circumstances has started to be more salient after deleting my Instagram accounts. I guess it’s because Instagram provides a lot of distraction, affording me the privilege to not think about my problems, while simultaneously giving the illusion of ‘quality’ social interaction. Every like, comment, share, or message gives a small feeling of satisfaction, as if someone really likes what I’m doing. But when I think about the number of ‘actual friends’ I have made on Instagram (i.e. people who I chat with off of Instagram, would take the time to read my blog, or want to actually hang out), that number can be counted on one hand.

This raises a lot of questions. Why am I trying to make friends on an app not designed for making friends (and that requires tons of usage/engagement just to reach new people)? Is making 5 friends worth spending that much time using my phone instead of living my life? Could I have made the same number of photography friends simply by chatting with people who have cameras on the street?

I guess the reason I’m talking so much about Instagram again is because I am suffering withdrawal from not using it these past few days, and that the removal of that distraction from my life has made me hyper-aware of my feelings of isolation. It keeps crossing my mind that I could be checking Instagram, potentially chatting with some people, and seeing some nice photos. But social media is really like the fast-food of social interaction; it creates some quick-and-easy feelings of satisfaction, but provides little substance or long-term benefit, so I must persist in what I started.

I can’t help but think that if I had spent less time online or using social media, the increased awareness of my isolation may have prompted me to more actively try to invite people to hang out or develop a more solid social circle here.

The interesting thing about isolation is that different people may have vastly different responses to it. My social life here is already more active than some of my friends, but to me it feels wholly insufficient. Some of my friends love living alone, and would like to (at most) see friends or socialize once per week. Meanwhile, other people (and I) enjoy going out, seeing friends, and socializing at least 4-5 days per week. I truly can’t understand when people say they are too tired after work to see friends because, for me, the idea of going home and being alone sounds much more exhausting than going out and being around people. Maybe if I had roommates or lived with family things would be different. People give me energy; being by myself too much takes away my energy.

That being said, during times when I had a more active social life, I still spent considerable time alone to reflect on and digest my experiences, pursue my hobbies/interests, etc. It’s not that I’m unable to be alone or uncomfortable with myself, I just don’t do well with this type of social imbalance. A balanced life undoubtedly makes everything easier, but if I had a choice of what kind of imbalance to have, I would rather have too many people in my life than too few.

Feel free to share your experiences or ideas regarding this, but first I would like to say a few things (obviously because a few people seemed unaware and then gave me condescending/patronizing advice). Different people have different social needs; it’s not a matter of choice. Living with other people goes a long way to prevent feelings of isolation, even if you have no friends. What’s good for one person isn’t always good for another. Don’t underestimate the compounding effect of living in a different country while also feeling isolated; dealing with culture and language differences makes everything harder.

One reply to “Isolation

  1. My husband and I experience the same thing in Hong Kong! I totally agree that what’s good for one person isn’t good for another. I’m totally fine being by my own the vast majority of the time, and hanging out with friends/colleagues once a week, if even that (I do enjoy meeting their kids/pets), while he misses his regular, 5x per week socialization with family and friends back in Canada that he’s known for years. I would say that there is something annoying but worthwhile and important in f2f environments: there are conflicts of interest that don’t exist in online spaces, from what time to stop playing music at night, where to go hiking that’s a place everyone wants to go, what’s a good day to have lunch that fits everyone’s schedule — whereas in online environments there’s no give and take. It’s simply a constant affirmation of one’s views and ideas.

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