Let’s Discuss: Facebook, Loneliness, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Atlantic has something else for us to worry about: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The magazine article is a slog, but it does give us many things to think about.

We talked earlier this month about Facebook and our friends. But here’s the problem in a nutshell according to The Atlantic:

“within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

Just so you know, the article has what might be called an above-average amount of neurosis. Example:

“… the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.”

But, there are certainly many valid points. It would be foolish to argue that what technology gives with one hand in the form of accessibility, it tries to take away with an increased sense of isolation. And yes, there is very much a difference between loneliness and solitude.

Now the debate really becomes interesting when we talk about loneliness and online behavior; specifically the causal link between the two. Spending more and more time on the Facebook is either a contributing factor or symptom of the “loneliness epidemic” discussed by The Atlantic —

“But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants — that is, in quality social connections — has been dramatic over the past 25 years.”

And yet, we seem to crave loneliness:

“Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different … The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.

The great American poem is Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The great American essay is Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” The great American novel is Melville’s Moby-Dick, the tale of a man on a quest so lonely that it is incomprehensible to those around him.”

I’m still making up my mind about this. Is loneliness really part of the American DNA? Or hey, maybe we should blame Facebook for our loneliness. “[The] fundamental question: Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet?”

We (collectively) spend a lot of time on Facebook. The statistics are almost too depressing to quote. The point is, how we use Facebook is something to think about. But because of its omnipresence, we have a hard time taking that step back and thinking about it:

“More than half its users — and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user — log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation.”

That always-on state has to exact some sort of toll, either on us, or our social relations. Maybe the price is being paid in quality of overall communication?

There’s some correlation (not the same thing as causation) between how we interact on Facebook, and our feelings of connectedness or loneliness —

“If you use Facebook to communicate directly with other individuals — by using the “like” button, commenting on friends’ posts, and so on — it can increase your social capital. Personalized messages, or what Burke calls “composed communication,” are more satisfying than “one-click communication” — the lazy click of a like.

Even better than sending a private Facebook message is the semi-public conversation, the kind of back-and-forth in which you half ignore the other people who may be listening in. “People whose friends write to them semi-publicly on Facebook experience decreases in loneliness,”

On the other hand, non-personalized use of Facebook — scanning your friends’ status updates and updating the world on your own activities via your wall, or what Burke calls “passive consumption” and “broadcasting” — correlates to feelings of disconnectedness. It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”

So: are we unwittingly trying to make our friends depressed by showing how cool our lives seem? I know I sure am. No, but really — I’d be curious what my psychology friends think about how this relates to the upward and downward social comparison theories. What need does posting on Facebook satisfy for us? Facebook and the pursuit of happiness could be a good PhD dissertation for someone some day.

“Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy — it’s exhausting … Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.”

There is something to be said about how our imagined-or-intended Facebook image corresponds to some mistakenness for closeness and distance. What does it mean to be connected? Is there risk in Facebook usage becoming a lazy surrogate for time with real-life social interaction? Maybe Facebook addiction in small doses isn’t the worst thing in the world. But if we want to think about the things that matter most, it’s worth taking the trouble to think about how social a “social” network really is — -

“The idea that a Web site could deliver a more friendly, interconnected world is bogus. The depth of one’s social network outside Facebook is what determines the depth of one’s social network within Facebook, not the other way around. Using social media doesn’t create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another. For the most part, Facebook doesn’t destroy friendships — but it doesn’t create them, either.”

Yes, we spend more and more time online. And that time online comes from time subtracted elsewhere. But let’s be honest: technology only makes us lonely if we let it make us lonely, “We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.”

What does it really mean to say that Facebook makes us lonely?

“LONELINESS IS CERTAINLY not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around.”

By the way, here’s a link the UCLA Loneliness Quiz (apologies for the Oprah.com link, it was surprisingly one of the better options available online. Go figure).

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So, how big is Facebook? Comparing it to all of the coffee in the entire world was one sure way to impress at least me: “Some recent estimates put the company’s potential value at $100 billion, which would make it larger than the global coffee industry — one addiction preparing to surpass the other.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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