As usual, just after I write something I find someone else has recently done something similar. Stephen Marche wrote an article in the Atlantic this month titled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” which touches on much of what I wrote about in my ‘Why I Hate Facebook’ post. Marche’s thesis is much broader than mine, suggesting that society as a whole is made more lonely by social media, not just people like me. However, he’s likely falling into exaggeration on a number of points.
Despite some of the criticisms of his arguments, I find that Marche’s analysis of why Facebook can be an intensely lonely activity—as it is for me—very pertinent. A passage that really struck me was a description of the end of The Social Network:
…the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking—a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber. We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.
That, in a nutshell, defines Facebook—a desperate hunger for response and feedback. It’s that desire, that hunger for some fast and easy digitalized social interaction, that has kept me on the network and made me less than happy.
Marche also highlights a study from Australia that reinforce my analysis that Facebook is not the greatest of places for introverts. Neurotic and lonely people were found to use Facebook more than non-lonely people, and their behavior on it was also different. Neurotics (read introverts) were more likely to post things on walls, while extroverts were more likely to use the chat function. That fits with my personal experience, as I’m not likely to initiate conversations in real life, and on Facebook I try for the more indirect approach of initiating discussion by posting links. Of course, this rarely works.
A researcher from another, still ongoing, Facebook study also noted that passive consumption or broadcasting behaviour on Facebook was correlated with feelings of disconnectedness. Again, this fits with my behavior and my experience. Yet I think this is the behavior that people in my grouping of friends are trending more to as we no longer directly interact with each other on a daily basis. We share links, and perhaps have IM conversations if we’re extroverts, but we’re turning into broadcasters. We contribute to the information storm on our feeds, but don’t get much out of it. If we don’t take the time, or want to make the time, to force more direct interactions to happen, our experience of the network can turn sour, but we’re still mentally trapped by that desire for feedback.
The final thing I took away, was Marche’s reminder that the quality of our relationships, not the quantity of information we receive from them, is what makes us happy and fulfilled. I get satisfaction by being around people I care about and having proper conversations with them. Facebook gives me an illusory closeness to them, that doesn’t compare to the physical world equivalent, because I tend to be as introverted online as I am in real life, but without the benefits of the physical.
Before I finally wrap up this topic, I’d like again to go back to the augmented reality view of the internet and social media in particular. I think the problem with Facebook is that it’s really a victim of its own success. By switching from the original network model and allowing more people to join, users were able to ‘friend’ almost anyone in their lives. This of course led to everyone and your mom joining the site, but reduced the actual meaningfulness of the interactions there by way of information storm. Sustaining large friend networks in geographically and socially close-knit communities such as universities and schools works because you’re likely to see the random person you friend again at some other party and class. It makes less sense if you’re not in such a place. Those other people just become clutter on your feed.
I think it would be interesting if we had social networks that weren’t
designed to scale like Facebook, where they were made to be limited (again) to your university or high school, or local group of friends. You might have a contact list for people further out, on other networks, but most of what you shared and saw would be local and created to be that way. Perhaps I’m too tied to the broadcast model of social media however, and people would have no interest in such a model. It would be interesting to make and test however (Diaspora? Whatever happened to you?