The Loneliness of Social Media

September 13, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Tech / 21 Comments /
Spending more social time online can result in less in-person social time. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Social Share Counters

Are we becoming more ‘social’ as our lives are progressively saturated by social media? If so, why has the number of lonely people nearly tripled in the United States over the last 20 years, according to recent research?

Observations

That our relationships with others have changed as a result of social media is a foregone conclusion.

Blurred  and Broadened Borders of Social Spheres. Social media’s initial default of openness made normal the notion that the borders of our neatly distinct social spheres of who is granted access to the content of our lives are blurred, intersected and broadened. It’s increasingly tough to draw distinctions betweenpersonal’ andprofessional,’ not to mention ‘public’ and ‘private’ social spheres. And it’s increasingly expected — as is satirized in the South Park episode below this post — that we open our lives’ contents to previously siloed participants in our lives.

Increased Social Productivity. Our ‘social productivity’ is on an upward trend. That is, we ‘interact’ with more people on a broader array of subjects in a shorter amount of time than ever before. This is more a function of   technological innovation in communications and a heightened threshold for multi-tasking — broadly speaking — than a unique effect of internet-based social media’s ubiquitous popularity. But these new media have provided a platform for sharing rich forms of content, effectively expanding the palette we use to express ourselves.

A Deeper, Different Look

Spending more social time online can result in less in-person social time. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.

Social media have certainly expanded the absolute number of human social interactions. A qualitative look at how we use these media to interact with others, however, sheds light on a somewhat ironic result: social media can actually enhance physical isolation, loneliness and detachment from others.

Socially Prolific, but Physically Isolated. While our social interactions on an binary scale have absolutely increased, being increasingly ‘jacked in’ has also resulted in a larger proportion of our ‘social’ lives being spent in physical isolation. Though we can share our lives through social media with people in-person, actually using the media is necessarily a personal, solitary experience. Our immediate interaction is with devices — our computers, smart phones and tablets — not people. Whether more prolific but less physical social relationships are preferable to the less frequent physical intimacy of yesteryear is a big conversation best saved for another day.

The social time we spend online can cause detachment from in-person relationships.

Detachment from Others. As traditionally physical interactions are increasingly superseded by virtual counterparts, the decline of our physical interactions with others has real impacts on how we relate to others. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the interesting (though unethical) research of Harry Harlow with rhesus monkeys indicated a primal longing and need for physical contact with others. Long periods of time without physical social contact result in further withdrawal from society, a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness. And loneliness, as you’ll soon read, can be both enhanced and spread through social media.

Social media can act as a more efficient platform for spreading the contagious effects of loneliness.

A Platform for Loneliness. Recent findings by professors at Harvard, UChicago and UCSD discovered that loneliness, like a cold, can be contagious among social networks. Involving roughly12,000 people over 60 years, the study concluded that lonely people are highly likely to share their loneliness with others, extending up to three degrees of separation (One lonely friend makes one 40 to 65 percent more likely to be lonely, a lonely friend-of-a-friend makes one 14 to 36 percent more likely, and a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend makes one 6 to 26 percent more likely, the study suggests). Says UChicago’s John Cacioppo:

“These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater.”

Social media amplifies and exacerbates the spread of loneliness, providing a more efficient platform for lonely people to share their loneliness with others. Not only that — increased use of social media both increases physical isolation (see above) and provides a disheartening view into more popular people’s lives.

Social Media Success, Where In-Person Largely Fails

Social media isn’t all bad, though (duh). In fact, it produces some great results where in-person interactions often flounder. Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski astutely observes:

“Online social networks are most useful when they address real failures in the operation of offline networks.”

Among the biggest failures of in-person interaction that social media addresses are keeping up-to-date and in-touch with friends and acquaintances outside our most immediate social periphery, establishing new relationships (both professionally and personally. Interestingly, online social networks may soon become the No.1 way Americans find significant others, some experts suggest), and facilitating a passive job search. And, needless to say, it allows us to satiate our voyeuristic desires to peer into others’ lives and points-of-view, even as people are increasingly pushing their privacy thresholds back against social media’s push forward. Piskorski confirms:

“People just love to look at pictures. That’s the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles.”

 

Closing Remarks

Admittedly, this account of some of the impacts of social media on human interactions is incomplete. In particular, I never explore the impact of social media on the presentation of self in everyday life. Undoubtedly, social media have provided an elevated platform for narcissists, self-promoters and online celebrities to broadcast their lives, thoughts and points-of-view. How this affects the general consumer of social media’s sense of self and identity is best saved for another entry.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on both that subject and the one in this post in the comments section below! Thanks for continuing to follow the blog, and apologies for not writing more. Rest assured, though, I’ve been keeping up with at least some social media, and there’ll be more to come on the  blog soon!

0


21 Comments

  1. Keeley

    September 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Wow! What a great post.You've done a nice job summarizing some of the best thinkers on this topic. My opinion: like any other indulgence or good, moderate use tempers any dangers of misuse. Any social media use should be complemented by deep relationships in a community. The balance of these two is a delicate task. I think one way to ensure your own personal happiness is to recognize the ultimate end of social media: to lead you to deeper friendships and human connection, not less. If one is not seeing this fruit from usage it might be time to back off. Otherwise, go for it!

    • Steven

      September 13, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading, Keeley! And thanks for the props!

      To your specific point: I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I think most people are on the same page. But, I think it's important to explore extreme cases in-depth; these provide the best insights, I think, into the actual impacts of these behavioral patterns on a micro-level (which can then be abstracted to a broader level).

      I think, too, that future generations will experience and even stronger swing into social (and other types, for that matter) media consumption, especially given the rapid development of mobile technology. Beyond that, it'd be interesting to see what consumption patterns are like for different demographics. I imagine that that this post is perhaps even more relevant to the retired elderly, for instance, who have even more time on their hands than Millennials.

      Thanks again, Keeley, for the thoughtful post, and I hope you continue following the blog!

  2. Adam Lesnikowski

    September 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Really nice article, Steve, I could not agree more. Of course we know the good the internet brings, it is important to keep in mind the bad as well. As a fellow philosophy student I can't help recommending Hubert Dreyfus's On the Internet in the "philosophy of the internet" genre.

    • Steven

      September 13, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for following the blog, Adam, and for the kind words! I'll definitely check out the Hubert Dreyfus stuff. If you have any other recommendations, I'd love to hear them! Also, if you have any PDFs you could forward, I'd greatly appreciate it.

      Thanks again, Adam, and I hope that you continue following and sharing your thoughts! Hope all's well post-Harvard!

  3. Steven Richard Duque

    September 13, 2010
    / Reply

    My newest blog post: "The Loneliness of Social Media." Would love to get some of your comments! http://bit.ly/9UKu6I #socialmedia #culture

  4. louis

    September 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Your site is amazing. I am very impressed to see this. i want to come back for visiting your site. Keep doing Good as well as you can..

    • Steven

      September 15, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for the compliment, Louis! Hope you continue to follow the blog!

  5. Sky McElroy

    September 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Great post by Mr. @StevenDuque on "The Loneliness of Social Media."
    http://bit.ly/9UKu6I #socialmedia #culture”

  6. Marc L.

    September 14, 2010
    / Reply

    Great post Steven!!

    I was thinking about this very thing when I was having dinner with some friends. Out of 5 people 3 were frequently checking their Iphone's for updates, app's and you name it....so much for physical interaction in person.

    Like always, keep up the good job!

    cheers from Sweden

    • Steven

      September 15, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading, and for the compliment, buddy! Great to hear from you!

      I can't tell you how many times I've seen people checking random updates from their phones around me when we're supposed to be hanging out together. At dinner, too!

      Big hug, and hope all is well in Sweden.

  7. parallelcities

    September 14, 2010
    / Reply

    there's alot of talk about "the loneliness of social media": http://bit.ly/9I6PRf & http://bit.ly/9UKu6I but we're making some big changes!

  8. Derek Flanzraich

    September 14, 2010
    / Reply

    Compelling blog post by @stevenduque w/ on the loneliness in social media: http://bit.ly/clsTLR

  9. Michael Oshima

    September 14, 2010
    / Reply

    RT @DerekFlanzraich: Compelling blog post by @stevenduque w/ on the loneliness in social media: http://bit.ly/clsTLR

  10. Zach Puchtel

    September 15, 2010
    / Reply

    Love the post Duque!

    I think physical isolation is the most dangerous form that social media promotes. You ever wonder why monkeys are always so happy? They are CONSTANTLY petting, picking and combing each other!

    I love when my gf does this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1cRxXI8K_4

    • Steven

      September 15, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks, bro! Great to hear from you, and I'm glad that you dig the insights.

      I'm also in the camp that constant physical contact makes for a happier person -- preening included. :)

      Hope all's well, and I hope you continue to follow the blog!

  11. Kicker

    September 17, 2010
    / Reply

    Super post, tienen que marcarlo en Digg

    Kicker

  12. Rory

    October 5, 2010
    / Reply

    Great post. I feel lonely now. Great. Post.

    • Steven

      October 10, 2010
      / Reply

      Hah Sorry, Rory! Good to hear from you. Hope all is well, man.

  13. Pharmacy Technician

    October 18, 2010
    / Reply

    I like your point of view and your blog design simple, clean yet attractive.
    I think you have managed to express the state of mind that a lot of people are in about the social media.

  14. Z

    January 25, 2011
    / Reply

    I feel like you could probably teach a class on how to make a great blog. This is fantastic! I have to say, what really got me was your design. You certainly know how to make your blog more than just a rant about an issue. Youve made it possible for people to connect. Good for you, because not that many people know what theyre doing.

  15. UnitingChurch VICTAS

    July 18, 2011
    / Reply

    @communic8jesus Not very creative, since I just googled it: http://t.co/LPVXGuw


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Reply

  • tod