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“Loneliness is the endemic disease of our time.”

My husband broke out this sentence last weekend, and of course, my response was, “Where’s my laptop? I need to write that down.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence: at its most basic, the state of being lonely and all it entails, the idea of loneliness as a disease (and a widespread systemic one at that), and whether loneliness is more prevalent now than it has been in the past.

And once I add in the context of the conversation, which was about social media, there’s even more to think about. How does social media (Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, forums, online dating, etc.) affect loneliness? Does it make us feel more connected and satisfied on the whole, or does it, by diluting our pool of friends and sometimes encouraging quantity over quality and surface over depth, make us feel even more lonely?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Even if I examine my own personal experience, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions to social media.

The Bad:

1. Hearing about a party that all your friends went to, to which you were not invited, is not so fun. On the plus side, this means that when the party comes up later in in-person conversation (which it inevitably will), at least you’re not blindsided and can respond with the appropriate blasé remark.
2. Reading the never-ending stream of advice and opinions about writing and the publishing industry can be draining and kill my own inspiration and ability to work. I imagine this is true in other fields as well.
3. Time sink. Enough said.
4. Having a lot of Facebook friends is not the same as having friends who form my support network, with whom I have a private and personal relationship. And yet, sometimes Facebook distracts from the need to maintain those deeper relationships.
5. Friends’ internet time is not equal, so I will end up with more interaction with those friends who check their social networks frequently, as opposed to those friends with whom I have the closest in-person connections.
6. Social media makes me feel like I know what’s going on for people, and it makes people feel like they know what’s going on for me. Which is great, until I start to think about all the things I never say because they are too private for public consumption.

The Good:

1. One of the reasons I love blogging so much is because it allows me to use social media in a very content-heavy way, helping me balance the whole breadth vs. depth issue. Plus it gives me the chance to be a conversation-starter or to respond in depth to interesting conversations begun by others.
2. I am able to keep myself very informed and up-to-date on any of my interests or career concerns.
3. Social media makes it easier to reach out and create or find a community of like-minded individuals.
4. I can stay in at least nominal touch with a lot more people than I could have even ten years ago. Contacting someone out of the blue is also a lot less weird than it used to be.
5. Getting multiple birthday wishes (and having an easier time remembering and acknowledging others’ birthdays) makes me happy. Yes, I love birthdays.
6. Sometimes social media is great entertainment, pure and simple. And I love the way it lets people share content.

On the whole, social media makes me feel more connected, as long as I remember that it’s not a substitute for in-person time (or e-mail for those of my friends who aren’t local). What has your experience been with different forms of social media? Does it make you feel more or less isolated?

On Thursday, I’ll be exploring the idea of how loneliness fits into modern American society, and why it might be on the rise.

UPDATE: An interesting recent article on how Facebook helps people overcome shyness. It ends with the insight that some users become more lonely because of Facebook.

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