Eric Berne’s Games People Play, written in 1964, is a seminal book on psychology, something you must read if you’re interested in understanding the nuts and bolts of human interaction. I’m not going to summarize it, but one concept I’ll describe from it is called strokes.
A stroke is a unit of human interaction: you pass a co-worker in the hall and say hi. Your co-worker says hi. You’ve exchanged strokes and everything’s good. A problem arises when you pass a co-worker in the hall and you say hi and she doesn’t say hi. You’re missing a stroke. Perhaps she was distracted, perhaps she didn’t see you, perhaps she doesn’t like your necktie, whatever: you didn’t get your expected stroke and it puts you off. Perhaps a little bit, perhaps a lot: many factors go into the value of a stroke.
Social media is a near-perfect way of not just measuring strokes, but displaying them to the entire world. Likes on Facebook, Favorites on Twitter, whatever they do on Instagram to signal approval of a photo: all strokes. All visible, all measurable, all important. We do things on social media because we want the world to see them, and we do these things to get strokes.
It’s cynical to perceive human relationships as such a sterile mode of exchange, but nobody is exempt from wanting strokes. How many times have you heard, “Well, a relationship is a two-way street.” “Give and take.” “Meet me halfway.” “I’m tired of crossing oceans for someone who won’t cross the street for me.” And so on. It’s transactional: you want something so you do something to get it. We all do it.
Some people need a lot of strokes to get through the day intact. The ones who frequently post pictures of their breakfasts or random, meaningless thoughts or whatever the dog is doing: they’re looking for their strokes online because they’re not getting enough of them in meatspace for whatever reason. It doesn’t mean they’re weak or stupid: it’s just how they are. Their closest friends are the people who give them the most strokes. It’s natural. Who doesn’t want strokes?
If you’re looking to prove the stroking concept, try this experiment: select someone you know through social media and have frequent, if casual exchanges with. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s a former work friend. Anyone. Then, for two weeks, stop stroking them. Ignore them and behave as usual with everyone else online. One or both of two things will happen: that person will directly contact you to see if everything’s okay, or he’ll stop stroking you, too. It might take longer than two weeks to get a reaction or it might take a few days. It almost always works, because deep down we all rely on stroking. Nobody likes to chase after someone who’s obviously indifferent. The only caveat is that when you end the experiment it may take time for that person to return to mutual stroking. They’ve built up that stroking deficit and you’ll have to make it up with extra strokes. Other people may immediately pick up where you left off. Depends on the person. Doing this is mean and manipulative and awful, but you knew that already.
What’s amazing about strokes is that they’re valuable even if they come from people you don’t particularly care for. Most of us, especially those who use social media as part of work, have online friends who we’re not really friends with. Some know people we want to get to know; others are professional acquaintances, colleagues, or bosses; yet others are friends of friends or relatives. You don’t like them but you know them because it’s better to know them than not (or so you think). If you get strokes from them, you’re fine. But when you don’t get an expected stroke, that becomes troubling. Are you really going to chase after someone you don’t like over something you can’t really quantify? Of course not. So you’ll let it go. Sort of. Most likely you’ll add it to the reasons why you don’t like that person. Resentment builds: maybe a little, maybe a lot. It’s okay. It happens to everyone.
With all this in mind, give your social media interactions a good, close look. Be mindful of what you’re doing, which means examining why you’re doing it. It’s small, it’s petty, it’s meaningless. Except that it isn’t. They’re your strokes, and you need them. Bad strokes are better than no strokes.