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Gini Dietrich

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 17, 2012 | 
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Earlier this month, there was an article in The Atlantic written about Facebook…and it’s effect on our loneliness.

The article begins by telling the story of Yvette Vickers, the former Playmate and actress who was found dead in her home a year after she died. Her computer was still on and, when they checked her phone to see who she might have talked to before she died, they found she called distant fans who found her via the web instead of her “real” family or friends.

Of course, this makes the assumption she knew she was about to die. The coroner later released the autopsy study that shows she died of heart disease. More likely, she was just going about her day so, in her mind, wasn’t really making her last calls to distant fans.

While her connections late in her life had increased, the article claims they were more shallow, “as has happened for many of us.” We’re extremely accessible now, but it seems we are more isolated: A contradiction in the sense that the more connected we are, the more lonely we become. “We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”

Is it the Fault of Facebook?

Facebook is closing in on one billion users, as they begin their roadshow for the initial public offering. They’re rumored to be valued at $104 billion and think they’ll raise $16 billion when they go public…the largest Internet offering in history. Last summer it became the first website to reach one trillion pageviews (TRILLION) and nearly three billion likes and comments every day.

Most of us use the social network. Many of us are addicted to it (cough, me, cough). We struggle with accepting, or ignoring, friend requests and some even obsess over who is unfriending them on a daily basis. The more we use it, the more comfortable we become with it and our boundaries change on what is acceptable and what is not.

We now live in this very strange world where we consider people we’ve never met in person real friends. When I talk about this when I speak, particularly to business owners, they just shake their heads. It seems strange we’re making friends online, with or without ever seeing them in person. Some even make the joke their kids have 250 Facebook friends, but no one to go out with them for dinner.

Are We More Lonely?

Facebook arrived when Americans seemingly are more alone. “In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person.”

But living alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely. I was listening to Barry Moltz interview Susan Cain last week and she talked about how half of our population are introverts. This doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t like to be around people. It simply means, while extroverts get their energy from being around throngs of people, introverts get their energy from a quiet glass of wine with a friend or reading a book. Just because we don’t like to be out every night at a rave does not mean we’re lonely.

Facebook, and the other social networks, give us the ability to “talk” to people without actually having to talk to them. When clients ask us who we recommend they put in charge of a particular social network, we always recommend they start with the introverts inside the company. Social media allows them to make friends and break the ice behind the comfort of their own computer screen, which makes them much more comfortable and productive at trade shows, conferences, and networking events because they’re not meeting people for the very first time.

Solitude is Altered Forever

The appeal of Facebook, of course, is it allows us to combine distance with intimacy. I always say Facebook is my own personal stage – I use it to see which jokes, which updates, and which photo captions people will find most engaging. I use this “market research” when I write, when we work with clients, and when we create new content. But I would never actually get up on a stage and perform. It’s not in my DNA.

The Atlantic article goes on to say, “The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.”

We never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But now we do it before we get out of bed and right before we plump our pillows and close our eyes for eight hours. Yvette Vickers’s computer was on when she died. It stayed that way for a year and no one noticed she wasn’t commenting or participating in the conversation.

I don’t know. I’m torn. In one sense, I think Facebook feeds our need to be social and in the other, I wonder if all this technology and accessibility really is making us more lonely.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

162 comments
rdopping
rdopping

I guess it's lonley if you don't have any friends.....I have some....I think.

allenmireles
allenmireles

 @ginidietrich I think I'm torn on this one too. It is all to easy to isolate, even for those of us who are not introverts, and Facebook can (as you and I know all too well) take up a lot of time. It can become all too easy to overlook the people in real life and the local face to face opportunities to visit. Life feels so very busy for all of us that it is all too easy to go online instead of out there...On the other hand, Facebook, and some of its groups, has introduced me to people whose friendship and counsel I have come to rely on and treasure greatly. I feel so much the richer for it (and it pains me to say that). The time I spend in social networks and using other social media has rewarded me very richly. One of the things I have learned to do is to reach out to my online (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.) friends and make contact by phone or Skype or in person whenever possible. To try and keep it real.Thought provoking post, my dear. ;)

 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I am on Facebook right now and I am lonely. Oh wait there is @KenMueller one of my fans. He will keep me company while I wait for my other fans. Ken is making me BBQ Chitlins or Chicken or something. Oh here is @ginidietrich she brought me whiskey. Now I am not lonely on Facebook. I was a bit worried.

workmommywork
workmommywork

This is something that I've been thinking about a lot and I would answer yes - but with a caveat. I don't think Facebook is making us lonely - I think it is diminishing our ability to communicate well and form real world connections. I see this most markedly in my kids, who range in age from 5 to 17. The teenagers can't seem to open up an talk honestly with anyone. It's like candid conversation scares them - and I''m not just talking about being open with their parents.

 

What is striking is that they don't hesitate to share a lot on Facebook and via texts, but they can't do the same in real life. I worry what this will mean for them when they begin to date and, ultimately, marry. I'm a big believer that strong relationships are built on a foundation of complete honesty and open lines of communication and these are skills that I fear my kids will never learn how to develop.

 

I don't blame Facebook for this - it is not Facebook's fault. Rather, it is a generational issue that has come about because of our increasing reliance on digital forms of communication. You could actually flip the logic and argue that Facebook is in fact a PRODUCT of this (we are drawn to Facebook because we don't HAVE to communicate in person!) rather than the CAUSE of this!

 

Thanks for posting...

Andrea T.H.W.
Andrea T.H.W.

Online life and real life are two different things and given that you can't be in the same place at the same time if someone is a lot online it means that he's not offline. All day on FB means no friends or family and this is not at all for our benefit. Our life is outside the net or outside the cubicle.

 

From a healthy point of view the less you stay connected the better your life gets because it's real. Just like the more you stay outside in real nature the better you feel.

 

At the end you can live without a pc or a smartphone but you can't without air, food, water, family, friends....

 

Connectivity is a tool but it's not life, imho. But well I'm also a Naturopath so probably my point of view is biased. :)

richescorner
richescorner

I do think that facebook does cause its user to make more connections that are more shallow as opposed to having fewer close friends as we did in times past. Plus the internet, though it allows more connections, is also a barrier to forming a personal bond.

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

Several thoughts on this post:

 

1.  Ten years ago I read an article about how the Web was connecting us with strangers but ignoring our neighbors.  We used to chat over the fence -- Al Bundy style -- but now come home and get on the terminal.  Sort of lonely. 

 

2.  The Web is interesting for introducing us to people we might not ordinarily meet.  Amazing, not lonely.

 

3.  The people I've met online and then in IRL has grown dramatically. I don't have enough fingers and toes an more.  Amazing, not lonely.

 

4.  I work a lot. In fact, I'm almost always working.  That's the Web's fault.  And my inability to turn things off.  Sort of lonely. 

 

That's all I got.  Inconclusive.  As I see it, there are three possible answers to the question in your headline:   yes, no and somewhere in between.

 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I don't believe the Facebook numbers. How can activity per person go up by a magnitude of 10 yet time spent per person drop over 50% in the last 2 years. One odd thing is for the last 2 years the average user had 150 friendships per Facebook. But venture beat has this pegged at 100bil total which means much less friendships around 110ish per active user. and since I know many people with hundreds of friendships....I bet 15-20% of users have huge networks and 60% have less than 50. I have friends on facebook who post non-stop so I still see 15-20% of the users creating 75-80% of the content. Sad we can't get more resolution on this.

 

As per your post here I think Facebook allows introverts to be safely social, extroverts to be more social.....or not social at all online. I find that the most social people I know in real life do not spend much time on Facebook. They will use twitter and more immediate services like Instagram.

 

I don't agree with the Atlantic on the shallow connections thing. I feel that is true if you meet people on facebook vs real life or even twitter and then connect on facebook.

Robb_Wexler
Robb_Wexler

I would just like to state for the record that I am friending everyone on this post and therefore under rule 34.302...subparagraph 6 of the social media code.....those people owe me dinner....or a restraining order.

patmrhoads
patmrhoads

I think the answer to the title question lies at the root of how people use Facebook or any other social channel. I lost my wife to a boating accident late last year, and between the blog I started and being connected to people via Facebook and Twitter, I have found a huge community of support. In other words, I am FAR less lonely than I would have been had this happened even 5-6 years ago.

 

For me it boils down to HOW I interact with people, online or off. Quality interaction breeds quality relationships. Shallow interactions will not create real relationship, and in times when people need that real connection, it won't be there. I'm sure we can remember people who, even before social media, seemed popular and to have lots of friends only to find during trials that they seemed to suddenly have no one there. Social media may amplify that and make it possible for more people to be in that situation, but it's not the cause, IMHO.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

I read that piece and (cc @Shonali @KenMueller  re: existing behaviors), there were are few good counter-argument posts I read that pointed out that: 1) most social users are already social elsewhere, have connections and 2) the story didn't properly cover cause/effect. Does FB -- Interwebs in all its social gore - I mean glory ;-) -- make us lonely, or are 'lonely' people more drawn to it naturally? I'm not lonely, but am very comfortable - sometimes prefer - being alone.

 

Gini I know you think social is a great place for introverts to step out (agree); wanna say I had a similar conversation w/ @joey_strawn  about a shy gamer, who in the right setting, became very social. Social lets us find 'our' peeps - those who have similar likes and interests; once we do, the 'shy' takes a step back and we realize that we really aren't alone in this world, there are others just as obsessed with "Vampire Diaries" as I. 

 

It's the 'elaborate acts of self-presentation' - that is what social is doing: making it harder to hide, making it work to be a human and professional and the balance b.s.  It's the fishbowl effect maybe, always feeling like you're being watched and judged?  @TheJackB is right: you see only what I choose to show. FWIW.

C_Pappas
C_Pappas

People would never think it, but I am an introvert at heart. Sure, I can hold my own just fine IRL as much as I can online in the networks, but I prefer aloneness. I have always been drawn to the social networks (chat rooms we called them back when  Prodigy was around). I loved playing the part of someone else, being anyone I wanted because it wasn't real (it's much more real now I think).

 

I have had heated discussions with close friends that complained they were bored when they were not surrounded by others. I dont think it's good to be bored at all - when my friends get 'bored' they turn to the social networks. On the flip, I have lost friends because they were so consumed with their online lives that they forgot about all the people physically surrounding them.

 

It's a good discussion and something to think about. Just the thought that it is now a viable threat to say to someone 'I will unfriend you on Facebook if you piss me off' is enough.

autumnmthompson
autumnmthompson

The first thing I thought is where is Yvette's family?  There wasn't one person in her family that would have wondered where she was in a year?  That's sad.  I find Facebook humorous.  It's like dating, you are only meeting someone's representative.  Some are outwardly crazy others not so much.

 

We recently had (and are still having) a debate in North Carolina over an amendment.  I saw such nasty things written to "friends" on Facebook, I had to take a break from it.  Why is Facebook considered a different platform to discuss a topic with someone?  Why do people say things they would not otherwise say IRL?

 

I love seeing people I know on Facebook and occasionally engaging with them but it will never replace the real people in my life.

TheJackB
TheJackB

I can see how Facebook might make it easier for some people to feel badly about themselves and their lives, but you have to hear those whispers already. Social media doesn't necessarily present us as we really are. Sometimes you see just what we show you.

 

My family is scattered around the world. Facebook helped us reconnect so I could argue that in some ways it wiped away loneliness.

 

 

walnutwriting
walnutwriting

Anne, this piece is a real eye opener about the sad state of our society. I live in India, and although the state isn't so bad here, my work is such that I hardly speak to anyone, except via email (if I can even call it "talking" or "speaking"). Most days, I go for extended walks, just to see some people. 

 

And really, even though most of us have more than 200 friends on Facebook, they're not really our friends, right? We hardly speak to them, an occasional like or comment is our preferred form of communication. It's sad really!

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

This is a topic I have been ruminating on a lot recently. First Sherry Turkle's amazing TED got me thinking, enough so that I have started her new book "Alone Together". As an introvert, I distinguish between "loneliness" and "aloneness", but I find that the constant connectivity means that I sometimes use social media as a substitute for authentic interaction. Sherry's line "I need to have a feeling, so I send a text" has stuck in my mind. It has made me much more aware of my urges to connect virtually. While as adults we have some awareness, I do have concern for my younger nieces and nephews who just don't know any other way.  My sister in law is a high school consultant, and she says that on field trips all of the students now sit in their seats quietly, texting and facebooking. I think that is really quite sad.

AnneReuss
AnneReuss

 @jasonkonopinski It's really inspiring for me to see that my story reached out to you too! I could go on and on about this topic in debate (for those who don't know - I am Deaf)

 

I entered the world of social media the start of October, and it''s been incredibly rewarding. Love love.  It was an opportunity to amplify my personality and show others how much I, well, love people! Mind you, I can do somewhat darn decent at meeting people on my own with my deafness but on twitter I found I could meet anyone seamlessly and jump in conversation at the same pace in ways I can't online. It was a new mode of accessibility to me. Twitter is my "radio".  

 

Bravery is something one possesses that keeps growing in ways you don't realize, kind of like confidence. I'm more willing to go to events now because it makes it more comfortable to meet people (or even more so - easier for the OTHER so they know that they're "getting into" ha!) which is one thing that drives me to use social media - so I can get 'out there' but  I've realized not long ago that I feel lonely working at home part time...antsy on the computer... As much as this girl liked her freedom, I found myself wondering if finding a job would solve this problem. BUT not getting hired (another story, another time) led me to this pretty neat situation I'm in here so I have the opportunity figure out my path so I can be like @ginidietrich  - travel, speak, meet more people on/offline! So yes, I see both ways..ok, ok .time to go write a future blog post THANKS for the brain exercise gosh! 

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

This is such a fascinating topic and I have so much to say. Let's see if I can keep it brief!

 

First of all, over dinner with several friends last night, the classic topic of FB came up pitting those who are on it against those who look down upon it, saying they are just too busy and "i don't get it." I don't even get involved in those conversations, actually. I just sit there, and shake my head internally. :) I mean, come on. 

 

To answer your questions, I'd say yes and no.

Yes - I think it can breeds a whole new dynamic that can create negative IMMATURE feelings of "that person's life is better than mine, they are having more fun...etc." "no one commented on my photo." "DId you see what that person said...? " 

 

No - I live (and work) in a very isolated place. I can go all day without seeing a single person. Actually, I love it. most of the time. And I turn to my social networks for company. 

Farreys
Farreys

I think facebook is helping us to stay more connected with the world, but we really need to learn how to use it effectively so we keep time for us and family.   

M_Koehler
M_Koehler

You know my thoughts on this. I do agree that the internet (it's not just FB but Twitter, message boards, chat rooms, etc.) has isolated a certain percentage of people to the degree that they are more alone then before even though they have tons of "friends". However I think that is a small population. I think it's a great way of meeting people that you eventually become friends with in the real world. I have several that I've become very good friends with in real life after meeting originally through a couple music message boards I frequent including a few from overseas. Unless I know you in person, I don't add you on Facebook typically. I might me in the minority on his however. Afterall, I met Mrs. K through the internet.

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

Hmmmm... I have so many thoughts running through my head. Such a fascinating topic! For me, personally, Facebook definitely doesn't make me feel lonely in the least bit. It's likely because I am still grounded by my wonderful family who is always there to love and annoy me. However, for those that don't have a support system or real people at home, I can see how Facebook would make you feel isolated and jealous of the lives of others. I just use Facebook as a human experiment to see what people "like" most!

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

You know, I was hoping that you'd write on a post in consideration of that Atlantic piece. I've been thinking a lot about it myself since I first read it - and may still visit the topic in a post of my own.  We'll see.

 

I'm not one to blame the tools because, as you know, I'm active on a variety of social platforms. Internet communities are just *made* for all us introverts out there. It gives us the separation we need while still feeding our need to communicate - on our terms.  

 

Social has, in some ways, forced us to sacrifice deeper relationships for a wide, shallow network. Like so many things in life, it's about striking that balance.  I was on a podcast just this week where we spoke at length about this article and the host brought up an interesting story about someone he had befriended online. This young man lived in a war-torn part of the world with a vacuum of positive role models and hope. Twitter filled a void there.  

 

KenMueller
KenMueller

I think this is an area in which we need to be careful. I often speak to groups who ask about the isolation caused by social media, and I think this might be more perception than reality. Check out the studies at the Pew Internet and American Life project. I often quote  few of them (and just did so yesterday when speaking to NPO volunteer coordinators)  that indicate that those who are heavy social media users are a) actually more social "in real life", i.e. get out there and do more, and b) are more active in causes and organizations that those who aren't using social media as much. 

 

I think that when it comes down to it, heavy social media use can magnify the behaviors that are already there.

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