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Gini Dietrich

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 17, 2012 | 
166

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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

161 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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @workmommywork As a business owner, it does scare me to think about how hard it's going to be working with people who don't know how to talk to their peers in person. We had something similar a few years ago. I discovered some of my younger staff was saying HORRIBLE things to one another over email. Things they would never say in person. And, even though they only had half a wall to separate them, they'd email instead of talking to one another. I banned email for a month. It forced people to talk to one another and morale improved dramatically.

 

But you think about these things so I'd guess your kids are the exception and do know how to talk to one another.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Pat Rhoads

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @Andrea T. H. W. I like the biased point of view because it gives us all something else to consider. But, I have to say, I can be in two places at once. It's something I've invented called clones. Would you like in?

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Pat Rhoads

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @richescorner I remember reading a couple of years ago that a human being can only handle 50 relationships at once. Total...between work and personal. So, while we collect friends and followers and connections, we really can't handle having any sort of relationship with more than 50 of them.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Pat Rhoads

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @Frank_Strong LOL! That's exactly why I said I'm torn...lots of reasons for and against and they're balanced. But you know what? I'm SUPER excited to finally meet you in person in less than a month!

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Pat Rhoads

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @HowieSPM Since I wrote this, I've decided it's not the tool that is the problem. It's in how people use it. Yvette Vickers clearly didn't use it in the right way...she was probably feeding a need she had since retiring from show business. But I'd like to think someone would miss me if I missed a day or two on the web.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Pat Rhoads

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @3HatsComm  I suppose the other thing is we only let people see what we want them to see, so it's no all of us. For instance, I'm REALLY grouchy today so I'm staying off of Facebook. I know that, because I'm overly tired, I'll be super sensitive to something someone says that wouldn't typically bother me. So it allows us to manage our moods more effectively than in real life.

rdopping
rdopping

What? I really don't have any friends? Huh. Bummer.

workmommywork
workmommywork

 @ginidietrich

 Ha! I wish I could say that awareness on my part has translated into better communication on the part of my children, but that is not the case. I'm still holding out hope for my 5 year old, but I really worry about the older ones. And you are right about how this manifests in the workplace. I can tell when some of my younger employees are frustrated or unhappy, and while they are very comfortable texting each other about it, it's really hard to get them to open up in a conversation with me. I'd love to know how you were able to ban email without impacting work (in my case I'd probably ban texting!).

rdopping
rdopping

That's a lotta relationships to juggle. I have trouble with 5 but then again I spend most of my time on the internet.......;-)

patmrhoads
patmrhoads

 @ginidietrich

Oh wow, thanks. I would have loved to have co-written a post about this topic with you. Maybe some other time - I have strong feelings about how people interact online versus offline (in case you couldn't tell!). And yes, social media has practically saved my life the last five months.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @ginidietrich @3HatsComm I am an Alien on Twitter. On facebook I am the CEO of mercedes Benz - Jordan, but I was born in Mongolia, I live in Mali and have a degree from Oxford. Social is great I can be anything I want to be and no one would know the truth. And people wonder why Facebook ads don't work.

rdopping
rdopping

Crap. I hear you can by friends on Twitter! Should I try that (silently weeping)?

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

Hi @patmrhoads , I'm the chief content officer for Spin Sucks and I've been observing the conversation without jumping in. I too spent a little time on Missing Aimee this afternoon and I was moved beyond tears. I really don't have words to express what I want to say but it was hard for me to return to work afterwards.

 

I'm excited you would like to guest post. And  @ginidietrich is going to refer you over to me at this point anyway, so I'll say, "hi," and ask you to email me at lgerber at arment dietrich dot com for details. 

patmrhoads
patmrhoads

@ginidietrich I assume you're referring to the "Missing Aimee" blog? And yes, I would love to write a guest post for your blog. Maybe we can exchange a few DMs and nail down the details?

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @3HatsComm  @ginidietrich on Twitter Gini is the Queen of Manwich. On facebook she is the avant garde reclusive socialite. On pinterest a party hostess. On myspace a punkrock guitarist.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

 @HowieSPM  @ginidietrich On Twitter I'm also a hot demi-goddess who curses a blue streak, imbibes copious amounts of vino and has designs on the lottery. So .. not so much different I guess. ;-)

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