Loneliness In The Age Of Facebook

Apr 19 2012 @ 2:37pm

Stephen Marche's Atlantic cover-essay has gotten a lot of pushback. Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, notes:

Research by many people (most importantly Keith Hampton) show again and again that Internet/Facebook users are less isolated than people who don’t use social media. … What data I’ve seen makes a strong case that social isolation is increased by factors like suburbanization, long-commutes, long work hours, decline of community and civic institutions, etc—not online sociality.

A reader quotes Marche:

[C]ustomers stopped having relationships with their grocers. When the telephone arrived, people stopped knocking on their neighbors’ doors. Social media bring this process to a much wider set of relationships.

Faulty premises lead to faulty results. To the contrary, A&P led to more customers visiting their stores in person instead of having the store do their shopping for them and delivering the goods. Phones led to people making appointments to see each other rather than trudge across town hoping they were home. We know a lot more people than we did back when we walked or rode horses.

Sure, idiots who think they have 3,208 friends are deluded. But since I recently joined Facebook, I stay in touch with my family much, much more than I ever did before, since we live thousands of miles apart. I have a handful of new friends I have never met, but they are people I know through others and we share interests and now plan to meet in person at the first opportunity.

Robert Lane Greene takes his own long look at the social networking mega-site:

Once people suffered from hysteria and melancholy; in the modern age, they have anxiety and depression. Once they suffered gossiping and bullying; now it’s "Facebook official" drama and cyber-bullying. Once they could envy the greener grass on their neighbour’s side; now it’s "Facebook anxiety" about his (or, more likely, her) online photos. Once they wondered if their social lives were fulfilling enough; now they suffer FOMO—fear of missing out—and get to see all the pictures from the party they weren’t invited to. New labels for old problems.

Michael Sacasas sounds off:

The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether Facebook makes us lonely, but whether Facebook is reconfiguring our notions of loneliness, sociability, and relationships. These are after all not exactly static concepts. Here is where I think Marche raises some substantial concerns that are unfortunately lost when the debate goes down the path of determining causality.

What Facebook offers is the dream of managing the social and curating the self, and we seem to obsessively take to the task. The asynchronicity of Facebook is rather safe, after all, when compared to the messy and risky dynamics of face-to-face interactions, and we naturally gravitate toward this sort of safety. I suspect this is in part also why we would sometimes rather text than call and, if we do call, why we hope to get sent to voicemail. It seems reasonable to ask whether we will be tempted to take the efficiency and smoothness of our social media interactions as the norm for all forms of social interaction.