People like to find a scapegoat.
Recent articles link the rise of loneliness in modern society with the use of social media, and although I have explored the idea before, I have become less convinced. Isn’t it convenient that we can blame technology, that behemoth with which we traditionally have an uneasy relationship, for the lack of connection we might feel? And yet, even if, as some figures suggest, Americans are now lonelier and have fewer confidants than in the past, there is still little data to show this trend is being caused by social media.
I agree with Dr. Grohol, who states: “[Using social media] doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social.”
Instead, what social media allows us to do is maintain, in unprecedented volume and frequency, our weak ties. What is a weak tie? Someone who we don’t know very well, an acquaintance, if you will. By fostering so many weak ties, we are able to continue to expand our social networks and have potential reach to larger numbers of people, many of whom we will never directly meet or communicate with.
Obviously this is a major boon when we are, say, trying to sell something or build a reputation for ourselves or looking for a different job. But it can also be valuable because of the different insights and opinions we are exposed to, the potential actual friends we might meet, and the recommendations we might receive. Not to mention the benefits of being able to keep in touch, however superficially, with friends and family who live far away.
However, it’s not hard to see how social media might appear to make us lonely, especially if used as a kind of social substitute that it isn’t. If I am already feeling lonely and then I hop onto Facebook, the odds that spending half an hour reading my “friends’” status messages will make me feel any better are fairly low. But I have noticed a certain irrational expectation in myself that seeing all those photos and clicking “Like” a few times will magically pick up my spirits. Note to future self: that doesn’t work! Go out and see someone instead.
It’s interesting to watch ourselves learning how to deal with so many weak ties at once, a feat about which we are only now gaining experience. I like to think of social media as a party: a few of your really good friends are there, which is especially awesome. Then there’s those people who you’ve been seeing at these parties for years, and that’s the only time you talk to them. And there’s the newcomers, the people you don’t know so well but it’s interesting to chat with them for a few minutes. Except this is happening all the time on your computer, not just for three or four hours at a scheduled event.
And just like at a party, most people are trying to present their best selves. Many of them will keep their dirty laundry and deeper troubles mostly under wraps. A few of them might have embarrassingly public meltdowns. We’re surprised when the perfect married couple announces their impending divorce, when that vibrant woman turns out to have been suffering from a life-threatening disease, when bits and pieces of messy life burst unavoidably out into public view.
And social media is very much the same. We are presented with a smooth and managed facade, and sometimes we forget the facade does not always reflect what’s going on under the surface. All those people in your social media networks who have perfect lives with adorable children and exciting jobs and exotic vacations? Maybe her child vomited all over the living room this morning, or that exciting company is going through a round of layoffs, or that exotic vacation meant forty-eight hours of pure, unadulterated suffering from food poisoning. Some people show this underbelly of their lives, but many choose not to. It’s the way weak ties work. And as depressing as all this seeming perfection can occasionally be, we mostly find it depressing because we are not used to weak ties; we haven’t internalized the knowledge that these public statuses are only a small percentage of the whole. We believe, often without question, the stories people choose to tell about themselves.
The societal shift we are experiencing is certainly not without its difficulties. But social media, and the internet as a whole, are just technological tools like all other such tools. Sometimes we use them skillfully, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lack the understanding of how such tools work or for what they work best. Sometimes we’re not very interested in trying them out at all.
But I suspect loneliness arises much more from our physical environments and the strong ties that we either have or don’t have with other people. Strong ties that are fostered by face-to-face interaction, video chat, phone calls, and the exchange of letters and emails. Blaming a tool meant for developing weak ties for any trouble with strong ties seems misguided at best.
What do you think? Do you have less in-person conversations or strong ties because of the advent of social media? Have you been able to develop strong ties as well as weak ties through a social media service? How much does face-to-face time matter in your close relationships?