Facebook, individuality & loneliness

Just re-read this thoughtful Stephen Marche essay in The Atlantic Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? about social networking in the current American social context.

  • Facebook arrived at a time when Americans were more alone that ever before. The article points out that in 1950 fewer than 10% of U.S. households contained only one person, and that number had reached 27% by 2010. We’re a culture that extols the individual, something I am reminded of constantly when I compare my own family’s daily or vacation habits and choices with those of friends who immigrated to this country.
  • Our hyperconnectedness leads to myriad but shallow connections with others. In-person connections still matter, and having a number of people we consider confidants reduces loneliness — and that number is dropping.
  • There’s a troubling paradox of how many people we are connected with online and our increase in social isolation. The effects of the latter are tangible — more mental health workers from psychologists to life coaches, and more professional carers needed as we age and become ill.

What about time spent on Facebook, in particular, drives the loneliness in a constantly connected world?  Social media mavens cite the importance of authenticity. “Don’t mimic, that other guy with all those followers,” they tell us, “but be yourself.” Generally sound advice, but what they forget to add is that most people online are highlighting their best and most interesting selves “Here I am in Paris!” “Here’s the kind of witty banter that typifies an evening with my family.” The toddler beams into the camera, but the explosive tantrums are rarely captured and shared. It’s both widespread FOMO — at any given moment, someone in your network is guaranteed to be doing something more fabulous than you — and an underlying fear that perhaps almost everyone’s true selves are more adventurous and clever than your own.

Perhaps we’re all just using Facebook wrong. The author refers to the work of Moira Burke, HCI graduate student and soon-to-be Facebook employee, who points to the behaviors of broadcasting and passive consumption rather than engagement with friends as a cause of loneliness. To a degree, that makes sense: We’ve all had the cocktail party experience of the person who speaks in paragraphs, and with it the dullness and loneliness of listening to a monologue in a venue built for dialogue. True engagement, in Burke’s opinion, is enhanced by writing to friends rather than resorting the “lazy like,” and being motivated by others’ sociability to enhance one’s own.

Last year a Pew Internet and American life report asked ~1,000 technology stakeholders and critics about the ways millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. The opinions were diverse — even among a wide range of people who think a great deal about the effects of the internet, it’s hard to find consensus on how our brains, behaviors, and happiness will change as a result. U.S. internet users spend about eight hours a month on Facebook, so the degree to which hyperconnectedness to Facebook itself creates or abets loneliness remains an important and unresolved part of the discussion.

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