Social Media: For the lonely or the engaged?

I made a commitment a few years back to jump on board, and to fully engage as much as possible with social media. How can you not want to partake in such a transformational shift in human history?

Egyptians believed that the body was the link to a spiritual existence in the afterlife.
Egyptians believed that the body was the link to a spiritual existence in the afterlife.

There’s a terrific pair of articles in The Atlantic that explore the impact social media is having on relationships and society at large. While not setup specifically in a he said/she said format, the opinions are polar opposites. Are Facebook and Twitter creating a loner generation, or are these social media tools catalyzing massive (and positive) change, and actually strengthening both on- and off-line relationships?

One the one side, you have the mortified mummy. As in B-movie star Susan Savage of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman fame who was found dead after rotting for a year- the glow of her computer screen still “permeating the empty space.” This is Stephen Marche’s dramatic, attention-grabbing opening to the Facebook is making us lonely position.

A markedly less research laden perspective (and one partially in reaction to a New York Times piece “The Flight From Conversation” that suggests social media is driving us apart) comes from Zeynep Tufekci, an asssistant professor at UNC and Harvard fellow, who, while not gushing to the extreme, believes discussion can take place:  “It will mostly be because social media allow for such broad and deep conversations *among* the masses, who are reading and sharing rather than being lectured at and advertised to from their television screens.” I suppose in her view mummification cannot be directly correlated to  living 7/24 on Facebook. This is the social media has a small, positive role in human relationships position.

What I enjoyed about these two articles is the refreshing, non-hyped, non-LOL’d viewpoints. So much of the editorial and analysis these days is built for the viral, and, ultimately, attached to a book sale, research report, or infographic with ulterior motive.

Based on social reactions, the “lonely” argument is drawing the most intense reaction, with almost 300 comments, and 1,800 Facebook recommendations.

I cherry picked some of my favorite parts from both arguments. Obviously these lack context, so you should read the articles; just be sure to carve out some time, they are lengthy, especially Marche’s essay.

Social Media = Increased Loneliness

  •  We know intuitively that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Solitude can be lovely.
  • … but 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.
  • Despite its deleterious effect on health, loneliness is one of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving.
  • Back in the 1990s, scholars started calling the contradiction between an increased opportunity to connect and a lack of human contact the “Internet paradox.”
  • Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet? The question has intensified in the Facebook era.
  • We are doing it to ourselves.
  • Rising narcissism isn’t so much a trend as the trend behind all other trends.
  • Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

Social Media = Better Relationships

  • Every time I read one of these “let’s panic” articles about social media (and there are many), I want to shout: Look at TV! Look at commutes! Look at suburbs! Look at long work hours!
  •  All data I’ve seen say that people who use social media are either also more social offline; or that they have benefited from social media to keep in touch with people they otherwise could not
  • In other words, the people [NYT’s writer] Turkle sees with their heads down on their devices while on a train somewhere are … connecting to people they deem important in their lives. They are not talking to bots.
  • So far, I’ve talked about two categories of people — those who were already social and who are becoming even more social offline as a result of offline connectivity, and those who have felt awkward offline and who are benefiting from online socializing.
  • Increasingly, what used to be a given (social ties you inherited by the virtue of where you lived or your familial ties) is now a task (social ties based on shared interests and mutual interest).
  • None of this, however, indicates a flight from human contact.

Again these are all quotes pulled from the original article from The Atlantic by Marche and a rebuttal of sorts on the blog by Tufekci.

What’s interesting is there is no mention of likes, ROI, or influence. Rather, these are macro perspectives on how technology is related us as humans, and our interactions.

I wonder how the authors feel about those that buy friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter? Marche mentions the rise in narcissism and clearly social media is a massive me-too platform. Yes, sadly that’s a vanity plate in the sidebar to your right.

My Take, and Goin’ All In

I made a commitment a few years back to jump on board, and to fully engage as much as possible with social media. How can you not want to partake in such a transformational shift in human history? It doesn’t mean I’m on Twitter day and night. Far from it. I don’t typically engage in back and forth conversation, preferring instead to follow various topics, curators and news items of interest. I do participate more actively on Facebook. There I’ve tried consciously to keep my friend count down, and to people I’ve at least met, or know well through online connections. By the numbers my Klout era experiment might be considered an abject failure: 1,350 Twitter followers, 625 Facebook friends, in 178 Google+ circles.

Recently I shared a photo on Facebook. Much to my surprise it received a like from a rather militant looking guy, based in the Middle East. But we weren’t connected, we weren’t Facebook friends. How can that be? Turns out I had published my status update to the public, not just my circle of friends. It was actually the first time I experienced a tinge of mild fear and/or angst using social media. Not because this guy was from Iran or Iraq — I have many friends all over the world mostly because I traveled so much when younger, and studied abroad — but because his profile had so many photos of himself wielding weapons, with menace to match.

Social media is perhaps a real-time reflection of ourselves. The good and the bad. It’s as if the entire world was stuffed into Giants Stadium, and we’re all there rubbing shoulders. Rich. Poor. Old. Young. Happy. Sad. Desperate. Relaxed. Some of us are yelling at the top of our lungs!!!! Others are talking about interesting ideas. Somewhere in that crowd there’s another Justin Bieber. Social media didn’t necessarily make him a star. Certainly it made it happen faster.

I enjoy following folks on Facebook with shared interests. But best of all, like a lot of you, it’s invaluable for staying in touch with family. Mine is spread across several countries- mostly in Canada. Yet with social media you can be in touch constantly. There’s a warmth there that satisfies basic human needs, and it doesn’t feel lonely at all.

The Atlantic:

Social Media’s Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

New York Times:

The Flight From Conversation

Explore. Create. Live. Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 9,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Subscribe to 
Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.