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. 

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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 creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being's basic needs are met and in which all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his free eBook on how to escape the rate race and live a radically free life. Amor fati, humans.