"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 16, 2013

Are Facebook Users Lonely?

Ever since the introduction of modern technology, social critics have worried about their effect on the traditional values of family, community, and caring. The telephone, thought many, was not a remarkable innovation that would increase social communication, but decrease it. Why lean over the fence and chat with Mrs. Potter when you could call her on the phone? However, while the phone may have discouraged some forms of social interaction, it enabled many others.  The phone could be used to arrange and confirm meetings in a few minutes when mailing invitations could take days.

Image result for images early 20th century telephone hand cranked

When television was introduced, the same conservative critics felt that it would further distance us from others.  Our lives would become more solitary and confined. Thousands of living rooms would be dark except for the flickering light of the television instead of filled with friends and family, warmly and brightly lit.  Television would numb us, drug us into mental lassitude and intellectual impotence. The fact that it was ‘the window to the world’, allowing Americans to look beyond the confines of the holler for the first time was overlooked.

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Many older Americans grew up with television, and families used it as social lubrication. Although it was on from 7-11, it was electronic wallpaper.  It facilitated conversation.  There were never uncomfortable silences. Before television, if a family sat together in the living room, they were occupied with individual pursuits – Billy with his comic books, Sis with her dolls, Dad with the paper, and Mom with her knitting.  They didn’t sit in dumb silence, absorbed in their own worlds, but shared – a dropped stich, who got robbed, look what Superman did, see Baby’s clothes.  Television was no different.  It provided the bits and pieces which animated family viewers.

Inevitably the Internet came under the same type of criticism. Flipping between websites, surfing endlessly and often aimlessly would suck us in and keep us away from more important social interactions.  We would be hooked by the new drug of limitless information.  Of course this never happened.  While there were the inevitable geeks who never left their basement, most of us thrived in the new environment. Our social interactions were enriched by what we found online. 

Most importantly, we did not have to talk on the phone, watch television, or surf the web. We have always controlled the technology, not the other way around.

At the same time, the medium has always been the message. Electronic media whether phone, TV, or computer necessarily change the way we interact. Attention span has certainly been affected.  How many of us sit down and read a book for three hours without checking emails or texts; Googling a reference; or confirming a dinner date? The multi-tasking, multi-screen, multi-layered world of electronic communication has altered the way we see the world.  These perceptual changes are neither good nor bad, just different.  Most importantly, far from isolating us or removing us from personal reflection or social interaction, they enable more thoughtful insights and richer personal interactions.

Now it is Facebook’s turn to get beat up. The social media are isolating us even further.  We are substituting virtual ‘friends’ for real ones.  We are retreating from the real world of physical interaction, intimacy, and companionship.  We measure our social satisfaction by the number of ‘friends' we have, the number of posts exchanged, or the rate at which they increase.  We only think we are happy, say the critics, but in reality our hyperkinetic existence is keeping us from the source of true happiness – meaning.

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Most of this is nonsense, of course, and most investigations concerning the relationships between social media and happiness or its inverse have turned up very little. Recent focus has been turned to loneliness. If we are spending so much time alone, regardless of the virtual friendships we have, then we must be lonely. Yes, researchers tell us, there are a lot of lonely people using social media, but most of them were lonely to start with, and the poor losers have only Facebook to save whatever remains of their self-esteem.

Researchers in Australia, a country where Facebook has one of highest percentage of users, found that while social media slightly raise social satisfaction, it erodes family ties. Nothing new here, of course. If you are a surly teenager squirreled away in your room online with ‘friends’, you don’t have much time for Mom, Dad, and Sis.

In a front page article of The Atlantic (4.2.12) Steven Marche drew inferences from the reported rise in loneliness and increase in social media:
Marche described the distancing intimacy of social media in the context of an overall decline in social integration (In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.) Marche suggested that using technology in place of real interaction was at least partly to blame. (James Hamblin, The Atlantic, 8.15.13)
This appears nothing more than specious correlation. There are certainly many more important factors contributing to loneliness than Facebook.  American society has become more atomized because of two-income families, increased economic opportunity, suburban living, the decline of traditional institutions, etc. but it is hard to prove that it is Facebook that has driven us indoors. Even a cursory look at the social environment of young people today disproves any theory of socially mediated loneliness. The 20- and 30-somethings in the workplace have very involved and complex social lives.  They work eight hours every day with colleagues, have drinks and dinner with friends, sleep with lovers, nurse the baby, and walk the dog.  They also check emails and texts which allows them to more efficiently plan their social engagements to fit in with family and friends.

Loneliness, however, is a problem in the United States, and some critics are blaming electronic media:
A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness (Marche)


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While this may be true, the associations with social media are tenuous to say the least.  Loneliness among the elderly is very common, since the loss of a spouse, separation from children, illness and infirmity are necessarily confining, let alone nursing home gulags.  The currency of divorce and the very American compulsion to find love and sexual satisfaction combine to isolate younger adults. Speed- and Internet-dating cannot fill the holes left by a lost lover quickly enough.

Poverty and frustrated economic expectations contribute to loneliness. Anyone working two low-paying jobs in a small town in a poor state has to wonder how life has passed them by, how everyone but them gets the breaks.  They may be surrounded by family and co-workers, but life on the margins is a lonely affair.

The most interesting aspects of research into the effects of social media concern the changes in perception – how we see ourselves.
Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, said, “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.” Lanier argues that Facebook imprisons us in the business of self-presenting, and this, to his mind, is the site’s crucial and fatally unacceptable downside.
A considerable part of Facebook’s appeal stems from its miraculous fusion of distance with intimacy, or the illusion of distance with the illusion of intimacy. Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude (Marche)
While there is some truth in this, it is fiction to assume that people can so easily change themselves into something they are not.  If they use the platform of social media to create an idealistic avatar, this virtual person can easily co-exist with the real one; and there is no reason why fantasy and reality cannot both be a part of one life. At the same time, there are reality checks built into Facebook.  At least some one one’s online ‘friends’ are real friends as well; and word will quickly spread that the hot momma image depicted on My Profile is far from the truth.

Furthermore, if we can believe the worrywarts who convulse over self-image and self-esteem, the psycho-social factors contributing to shy, timid, and unsure children are far more important and more deeply-rooted than any electronic posture.

Worst of all is the assumption that the social media and their focus on individual image somehow contributes to a meaningless, amoral, and valueless society is nonsense. What is ‘the very nature of solitude’? To Marche it is clearly an old-fashioned nature – the solitude of Shelley crossing Mt. Blanc, or Thoreau on Walden Pond.  It is an idealistic 19th century view of inner, reflective, insightful solitude destroyed by 20th century modernism.

Image result for image thoreau walden pond

I know of no one who has no solitude.  Even in this world of ear-buds, perpetual music, and sensory stimuli, everyone has a few moments a day to reflect.  Introspection and personal insight do not have to come in the forest or in the middle of a lake.  They come most often in the chaos of the city when we see death, disease, happiness, or struggle. “What does this mean to me?”, we ask.

This persistent attempt to correlate new media and social and personal ills is tiring, for it is academic at best and agenda-driven at worst.  One cannot fail to notice the disdain that critics have for popular culture. They bemoan the demise of classical music, ballet, and Shakespeare; the corrosion of cultural values; the mindless, meaningless search for acceptance, beauty.

Social media are only the beginning of the virtual revolution.  Virtual worlds will progressively replace ‘real’ ones, and the universe of social, intellectual, and personal interaction will expand geometrically.  This is a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. This is an important for every Facebook users. Because Facebook useful for must interact with around the world.

    ReplyDelete