The Hedgehog’s Dilemmais a parable by Schopenhauer. It limns one of the most important contradictions of human life: without other humans, we are lonely, but with them, we risk being hurt. “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em,” to put it more colloquially.
In the parable, we are asked to imagine a group of cold hedgehogs. If a hedgehog is far away from other of its kin, it will remain cold. If, however, it seeks to assuage its coldness by coming into closer contact with its peers, it risks being pricked by their quills, and indeed, the other hedgehogs cannot avoid doing so, despite their best efforts. Essentially, human beings are driven to seek each other for personal contact and warmth, but pain is inevitable from this relationships. Even if one tries to avoid causing pain to friends and loved ones, it will inevitably happen, and indeed, it is often those most close to us who can hurt us most greatly.
Lately, I’ve become convinced that social media, rather than increasing the warmth we receive from each other, does little more than lengthening our quills, allowing people farther away from us to hurt us as ably as though they were much closer, with none of the beneficial warmth.
How much warmth do we truly get from connecting to each other via social media, such as Facebook? Does liking a post give you any fraction of the feeling you get from an actual conversation? Does commenting on a funny picture make you feel closer to your friend? Do you understand them better after having shared their incisive political memes?
Facebook is certainly a useful tool for facilitating activities that do lead to greater connection and understanding. As an event planner, a message board, and an instant messaging system, it helps me stay in touch and even improve my bonds with friends. But posting links and statuses? Informing others of where I am and of what food I’m taking a photo of? I feel this does nothing to improve relationships: it’s masturbation, pure and simple. I’m doing it for my own pleasure, and if someone else enjoys witnessing it, that’s a completely unintended benefit.
What about others’ use of Facebook, though? Not only do I receive no benefit from the postings of my close friends, but I am pained by some of the postings of those somewhat more distant, those who, in the hedgehog parable, are normally too far away to prick me, but might provide some slight warmth despite their distance.
These postings are reminders of our distance. Reading about a friend’s upcoming concert in Tokyo only reminds me that I cannot be there. Seeing that others were invited to a party only makes my own lack of invitation all the more apparent. I do not think they should stop, or that they are at fault for these feelings of mine, but after all, that is one point of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: we hurt each other without, and even against, intention. Others’ posts that we passively watch are not improving our relationships, only sharpening the sting felt due to the flaws and weaknesses of our relationships to others.
Am I recommending that people stop posting on Facebook? Of course not. Such advice would go unheeded, anyway, and it would not stop the flow of the river, only change its course. Is awareness of the problem my aim? One would think so, yet I cannot fathom how that would improve matters, either. Awareness of loneliness does not solve the problem, only action or internal reflection can. These, then, must be my goals.
Internal reflection is, by far, the more important, if the less useful piece of advice. Nevertheless, I do recommend that we all, so far as is possible, cultivate ourselves in order to become as calorific a hedgehog as possible, in order to make the coldness of the night a little more bearable, despite the distance we may have from others. Sociality is, I believe, a human need, but so is food, and we do not admire gluttons and hedonists, but rather gourmands. Friendship is the greatest good of life, but only when it is voluntary, not when it is needed.
More practically, though, I must recommend action. I confess myself guilty of every sin I have heretofore mentioned. I, as well as some of you, I hope, will seek to correct this, though, in the future. Why harm others and allow oneself to be harmed? Why not seek warmth without pain? I shall disengage from the more passive portions of Facebook and instead spend that energy more profitably on more personal interactions. Thusly shall I attempt to better my relationships with others, and restore a measure of true social interaction to my use of social media.