The Innovation of Loneliness: Do Social Networks Erode Real Relationships?

Three months ago, a video called ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’ was released online. It proceeded to scorch in viral glory across the web, garnering 3 million+ views as of my writing this, and not without good reason.

The beautifully animated four-minute mini-film provides a simple yet profound response to a poignant question: What is the connection between social networks and being lonely?

The video’s sociological explanation is unsettling, illuminating, and of great importance for all of us to ponder in our ever-more “connected” lives. I urge you to take four minutes to watch it now:

Essential Takeaways

For being just four minutes long, the film actually dispenses a surprising amount of information. After the 1:20 intro explaining how our modern loneliness trend correlates with the Western emphasis on individualism, it launches into its main event — a 2:40 line of reasoning arguing that this loneliness is exacerbated by social networks. I’ll try to pull out and elaborate on a few insights that I think are most crucial for us to consider:

1. Technology and social networks are deceptively sexy and target our vulnerabilities.

It is dangerously easy to abuse technology, to view it as our sleek, tantalizing savior. The video points out two major ways in which social networks present themselves as solutions to our social dilemmas. For one, we’re busy as hell, and they seem to be an instant and easy way to “stay connected”. Secondly, we’re afraid of intimacy, and social networks allow us to “see” people and “know” people without actually having to, you know, see people or know people. The addiction begins.

2. Social networks hook us by offering three alluring and previously unimaginable fantasies.

First, we can put our attention wherever we want — on anyone we know. Second, we can always be “heard”Third, we never have to be alone. When one considers how appealing these ideas would seem to almost any human, it’s easy to see why we become addicted to tossing tweets into the void, checking Facebook incessantly, and insisting on a quick Instagram update. The illusion of meaningful connection validates us, and it’s always just a few pushes of a button away. 

3. In online social networking, real conversation is sacrificed for filtered connection.

Since the dawn of our species, relationships have been based on face-to-face interaction, which is by definition unfiltered and spontaneous. Online interaction, however, can be tailored, tweaked, and photoshopped until it looks just how we want it to. This has led to a situation in which social networks serve as platforms to present finely manicured façadesnot the authentic, messy reality of our identities.

In addition, friendship, which should be something deep and meaningful, becomes conflated with sharing photos, dispensing “likes”, and exchanging half-a-thoughts on comments and over instant messaging. Thus, conversation between close friends is sacrificed for shallow, edited “connection” between constructed images. 

I do think there can be a certain amount of meaning in these exchanges, particularly in things like lengthy, deep instant messaging conversations or Skype calls. Especially when one has no other option to interact with the people one loves (while traveling or something), these can be excellent stand-ins. However, there is a real danger in compulsive social media usage of letting all or the vast majority of our relationships devolve into the occasional ‘like’ or SnapChat exchange, rarely seeing loved ones in person, further atomizing and alienating our already-atomized and alienated society.

4. Over time, we become psychologically conditioned in subtle and dangerous ways.

The problematic result of all of this can be summarized as follows: social networks are addicting and provide the illusion of real relationship. Over time, we begin to falsely equate genuine, human-to-human relationship with the shallow connection and gratification offered by social networks. We increasingly define ourselves in terms of our digital presence and feel the need to “share” constantly to feel heard and less alone (“I share, therefore I am.”).

But, we reach a point where we no longer know how to be alone. Always groping for our social media pacifiers and not understanding how they deteriorate authentic relationship, we wind up lonelier than ever. 

Lonely Chimp

Well, What Should We Do?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the phenomena described in this video do not apply to all of us. People use social networks in many varying capacities (some don’t use them) and are affected by them in wildly different ways and to differing degrees.

However, with more and more people using social networks all the time, I see this video as a relevant warning. I agree that many social networks are designed in such a way as to promote little beyond surface-level interaction, and I think that abusing them can lead to loneliness, as well as depression and skewed self-perceptions.

Furthermore, we should consider that social networking platforms (depending on your definition) have only been around for 10 years or so. Who can know how they will continue to mold and rewire our minds in the next decade or century?

So, I think we should exercise caution. I have a few ideas about how to do this:

1. Consciously resist viewing social networks as replacements for in-person relationship.

This one is imperative, especially within the context of ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’. We should continue to seek fulfillment and love from our real-world relationships, as humans have always done. Social networks should be viewed as a shallow supplement to relationships at best and a threat to genuine relationship at worst. 

2. Reduce, moderate, and disconnect.

Evaluate the amount of time you spend on social networks; spend less time on social networks. Be conscientious of that time and the other things you can do with it. Try to log on only with a deliberate purpose in mind. Resist the urge to compulsively check for updates or notifications. Control it, not the other way around. Take intermittent breaks from all technology. Leave the phone at home for a few hours or days. Notice the difference.

3. Make more meaningful use of the time you do spend on social networks.

I wrote about this idea in my article on mind-broadening Facebook pages. To use Facebook as an example, you can hide friends who don’t share meaningful content or who aren’t your loved ones. You can “like” pages that post intellectually stimulating stuff. You can make an effort to have more in-depth chat conversations. You can share more enriching content and less stuff about you. You can stop spending hours browsing other people’s pictures. 

4. Avoid the “I share, therefore I am” mentality like the plague.

We can become so entrenched in the habit of “sharing” our lives that we literally begin to think of every experience in terms of how we will present it to our “friends” later for recognition and positive feedback. I’ve been guilty of this (and of everything else I’m cautioning against), and I actively try to squash this mentality. The value of one’s life is not measured by the number of “likes” one receives on one’s latest profile picture. 

Pulling the Plug

Finally, I should mention that it’s always an option to stop using social networks. If you feel hollow, lonely, anxious, and addicted to social networks, then you really ought to consider deleting your accounts altogether.

If you simply need a bit of extra help with moderation, the Chrome add-on ‘Web Timer’ and the apps ‘Cold Turkey’ for Windows or ‘SelfControl’ for Mac can help.

As I mentioned, I’ve been guilty of abusing social networks.  I actively try to follow the advice I’ve suggested in this article, and for now, I feel my usage is purposeful and affecting the world in positive ways.

But, I will remain mindful, and if I begin to feel that this invisible social appendage is more trouble than its worth, rest assured I will swiftly amputate.

Dang, that last metaphor was pretty intense. ‘Til next time, friends, take care and stay social (the ol’ fashioned way).

P.S. If you just learned something, why not get free updates and learn more things?

P.P.S. The script for ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’ is based on the book Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. I have not read it, but I wanted to credit the source of the ideas.

Photo Credit: jinterwas (Creative Commons)


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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a writer and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He doesn't know things. He makes rap songs about Nietzsche and Dragonball Z. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative, open global community in which every human being's basic needs are met and in which all sentient beings are respected. Lately, he's primarily interested in how we can prevent humanity from decimating itself and the rest of the biosphere. So, you know, befriend him and/or get unusual essays emailed to you sometimes, if that sounds chill. Peace.


15 Responses to “The Innovation of Loneliness: Do Social Networks Erode Real Relationships?”

  1. Vincent Nguyen

    I noticed this in a lot of my friends too. They’re constantly on Facebook just checking statuses and photos when a real life conversation is 3 feet away from them.

    I joke that I have a one-year Facebook limit where I’m only allowed to post one status a year. Joke or not, it’s true that I almost never post on my own personal Facebook.

    I don’t see the need in posting more often because it would ruin the opportunity of actual conversations with my friends. If I had my life on blast in public, what would we talk about when we all sit down together? Sure, there’s a way, but still not as good.

    Went on a bit of a rant there. :)

    Reply
    • Jordan Bates

      Vincent —

      Definitely. I read a study recently that showed that when people are on their phone or *even if they just have it out* (like sitting on the table or something) during conversation, it makes both parties aware of broader networks and distances them from the in-person conversation.

      I’ve been trying to actively keep my phone put away during real interactions for some time now, but I still trip up. Once you begin to pay attention, you see how easy it is to become a compulsive user.

      Personally, I post on my Facebook quite frequently, but 90% of what I post are articles and other links that have nothing to do with me. Usually just things I find fascinating that I think more people should consider.

      I save actual talk about my life for in-person conversation too. Thanks for commenting, sir. Take care.

      Reply
  2. Zaeem Zahid

    “We can become so entrenched in the habit of “sharing” our lives that we literally begin to think of every experience in terms of how we will present it to our “friends” later for recognition and positive feedback”

    This struck home. I am guilty of doing this, sometimes even mindful that I’m doing this. It shows how easy it is for us all to get addicted to external validation like “likes”, etc.

    It gets really annoying and causes a lot of anxiety to always be thinking
    “Oh, I can’t wait to share this on Facebook” “How am I going to present this later”
    as it distracts us from experiencing the present moment as is.

    It can even get worse to the point where we start doing things just because it will get us more likes “Oh better to go this event, so that I can post about it”, “Better do this, this will look good on FB”

    The worst part is everyone on social media is doing the same. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself. Another issue with social media is it forces people to see others highlight reels. This sometimes creates a feeling of not being good enough and thus we think we have to share more to keep up.

    I’ve actively tried to cut down on this behaviour by:

    – Saying and doing things that I want to without thinking how they will be percieved.

    e.g When I want to say something to my friends, instead of changing it or saying it in a way that they might like, I just say it as I wanted to. Regardless of how it goes down.

    – Similarly to above, sharing without filters

    – Meditation (I tried headspace after reading this site and have to say it has been the best meditation experience. Andy really explains what meditation is about and how to approach it it rather than just the general “focus on your breath for 10 min” advice.

    – I only text, social media when I have something to say

    – If I can’t do it face 2 face, I’ll call to stay in touch with my friends.

    What else would you recommend to snap our brains out of this behaviour?

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Zaeem

    Reply
    • Jordan Bates

      Zaeem,

      Yes, yes, yes to everything you said. I would definitely echo all of your points on the “vicious cycle” of social media posting and external validation, as you called it.

      I’ve also practiced the tips that you suggested. I’ve never heard of Headspace and will have to check it out. Apart from my tips above, I just think finding other things to occupy our time (read more, take up an instrument, etc.) and also consciously resisting the urge to share things on social media are important.

      I’ve found that an experience can feel more intimate and become a more valued memory for me when I don’t share it with the world, when I just hold onto it in my mind. So I’ve started doing that some.

      Thank you for the long and insightful comment. It’s always great to hear from readers, and I appreciate the feedback. Take care, and I hope to hear from you again, sir. Peace.

      Reply
  3. Viktor Jonsson

    Hi! First I’d like to say that I really appreciate the blog. It is a great source for inspiration.

    On topic, after reading this I decided to share the video on facebook (oh the irony :) ). All well and good though. Today I realised that the post that I had made and the shares by friends had all been taken away without notice. I tried to resend the link in a chat message to a friend but instantly got a notification that I had tried to share malicious content. Scary ehh?

    Reply
    • Jordan Bates

      Viktor,

      Thanks for dropping a note. As always, wonderful to hear that someone has enjoyed the blog and found it to be a source of inspiration.

      And, yes, haha, I too always consider the irony when posting anything “anti-social network” to a social network. As for the removal of your post, that is positively frightening. I’ve heard of similar cases where intellectual content has been removed on Facebook for mysterious reasons. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t be *that* surprised to learn that Facebook censors content that is contrary to its ideological imperatives. It would seem to fit in nicely with the increasingly large pile of evidence of corporate corruption. Deeply unsettling, though. Almost like the thought police of Orwell’s 1984.

      Thanks again for the comment. Take care, regards, and don’t be a stranger!.

      Reply
  4. Sarah Owings

    This is a great topic. I appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of your writing, as well as the irony of you posting on a web page peppered with umpteen options to “stay connected,” and also by the fact that I found your blog in the first place because a good (yes *real*) friend of mine posted a link to it on FB. :) Now you, a stranger, and me, a stranger are sharing thoughts and ideas, whereas ten years ago you and I would probably never have had the opportunity to cross paths and discuss this at all. To provide a counter example to the aspect of social networks that do seem create loneliness at times, I have to say that I ended up meeting my husband via online dating, a relationship that has grown from frivolous beginnings to become deeply life-sustaining and genuine. But it was the frivolous, not taking ourselves too seriously part (because it was “just online dating”), that actually gave us the courage to take the leap in the first place. I do limit my social media to Yahoo lists, FB, You Tube, and my own blog (plenty!). I have no patience for Twitter, etc. because I appreciate the space to have more substantive conversations, and because I agree that checking status and sharing is scary addicting and time consuming. However, I also work in a field where many of us are independent contractors, which means mostly working alone; and the day to day struggles of my business can at times be challenging, disheartening, and very lonely. So it is really helpful to be able to connect with like-minded colleagues all over the world, sharing the good days, the bad days, asking for help and ideas, and these connections and relationships too I find to be quite meaningful and sustaining–even when it is just “liking” a cute picture of a friend’s dog or something. So, yes, although I certainly agree with everything in your post, like most things you read online, there is always an even more nuanced way to look at it. Thanks for encouraging thought this morning!

    Reply
    • Jordan Bates

      Sarah,

      Thank you for the insightful comment and for the encouraging words about my writing. Glad the irony was not lost to you. :)

      We are sharing ideas that we would’ve likely never shared otherwise, and that is the magic of social media and a digitally connected world. It is this–using social networking in empowering and enriching ways–that I’m interested in. I think doing so requires a certain awareness and reflectiveness that many people do not bring to the social media sphere. This is why I write pieces like this one, because I think it’s important to think critically about what we’re actually doing on social networks and what they might be doing to us.

      That’s amazing that you found your partner online. I too have found various relationships online that have become truly valued friendships. When this happens, I think it’s incredible and another testament to the potential that lies within these tools.

      Interesting that you mention that the “not taking it too seriously as a result of the digital medium” aspect of your initial relationship seems crucial to how the relationship progressed. I wonder how (if at all) this connects with the appeal of the not-in-person communication that online mediums provide? Mostly rhetorical question. It’s just fascinating to me that as we become more detached from our immediate surroundings via the social web, the social web’s appeal increases because we lose a sense of comfort and savvy in the immediate, person-to-person social environment. It seems like a self-strengthening cycle. I’m not sure how much sense I’m making.

      Nice to hear that you do limit yourself, and also great to hear an alternate perspective on the benefits of social networking. I certainly feel that there are many as well. It’s just: awareness and moderation, awareness and moderation, like with anything else.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion! Take care, and I hope to hear from you again sometime. :)

      Reply
  5. What's in a name?

    Loneliness, masked by the more socially acceptable concept of ‘boredom’.

    Reply
  6. What's in a name?

    Thank you for a very refreshing and insightful read, Jordan.

    Reply
  7. buhzzpuhzz

    zoabebuzzpaeyzepaeyvewuss

    Reply
  8. Lora

    I loved it! It’s very true. I dread the future. Is the human race going to go down the dangerous steep slope of loneliness and social isolation or are we going to realize what’s happening and turn back?

    Reply
    • Jordan Bates

      thank you. i think people are pretty aware of the negative potential of all of our screen-time. only time will tell what happens, i guess

      Reply

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