Are we becoming more ‘social’ as our lives are progressively saturated by social media? If so, why has the number of lonely people nearly tripled in the United States over the last 20 years, according to recent research?
Blurred and Broadened Borders of Social Spheres. Social media’s initial default of openness made normal the notion that the borders of our neatly distinct social spheres of who is granted access to the content of our lives are blurred, intersected and broadened. It’s increasingly tough to draw distinctions between ‘personal’ and ‘professional,’ not to mention ‘public’ and ‘private’ social spheres. And it’s increasingly expected — as is satirized in the South Park episode below this post — that we open our lives’ contents to previously siloed participants in our lives.
Increased Social Productivity. Our ‘social productivity’ is on an upward trend. That is, we ‘interact’ with more people on a broader array of subjects in a shorter amount of time than ever before. This is more a function of technological innovation in communications and a heightened threshold for multi-tasking — broadly speaking — than a unique effect of internet-based social media’s ubiquitous popularity. But these new media have provided a platform for sharing rich forms of content, effectively expanding the palette we use to express ourselves.
A Deeper, Different Look
Social media have certainly expanded the absolute number of human social interactions. A qualitative look at how we use these media to interact with others, however, sheds light on a somewhat ironic result: social media can actually enhance physical isolation, loneliness and detachment from others.
Socially Prolific, but Physically Isolated. While our social interactions on an binary scale have absolutely increased, being increasingly ‘jacked in’ has also resulted in a larger proportion of our ‘social’ lives being spent in physical isolation. Though we can share our lives through social media with people in-person, actually using the media is necessarily a personal, solitary experience. Our immediate interaction is with devices — our computers, smart phones and tablets — not people. Whether more prolific but less physical social relationships are preferable to the less frequent physical intimacy of yesteryear is a big conversation best saved for another day.
Detachment from Others. As traditionally physical interactions are increasingly superseded by virtual counterparts, the decline of our physical interactions with others has real impacts on how we relate to others. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the interesting (though unethical) research of Harry Harlow with rhesus monkeys indicated a primal longing and need for physical contact with others. Long periods of time without physical social contact result in further withdrawal from society, a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness. And loneliness, as you’ll soon read, can be both enhanced and spread through social media.
Social media can act as a more efficient platform for spreading the contagious effects of loneliness.
A Platform for Loneliness. Recent findings by professors at Harvard, UChicago and UCSD discovered that loneliness, like a cold, can be contagious among social networks. Involving roughly12,000 people over 60 years, the study concluded that lonely people are highly likely to share their loneliness with others, extending up to three degrees of separation (One lonely friend makes one 40 to 65 percent more likely to be lonely, a lonely friend-of-a-friend makes one 14 to 36 percent more likely, and a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend makes one 6 to 26 percent more likely, the study suggests). Says UChicago’s John Cacioppo:
“These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater.”
Social media amplifies and exacerbates the spread of loneliness, providing a more efficient platform for lonely people to share their loneliness with others. Not only that — increased use of social media both increases physical isolation (see above) and provides a disheartening view into more popular people’s lives.
Social Media Success, Where In-Person Largely Fails
Social media isn’t all bad, though (duh). In fact, it produces some great results where in-person interactions often flounder. Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski astutely observes:
“Online social networks are most useful when they address real failures in the operation of offline networks.”
Among the biggest failures of in-person interaction that social media addresses are keeping up-to-date and in-touch with friends and acquaintances outside our most immediate social periphery, establishing new relationships (both professionally and personally. Interestingly, online social networks may soon become the No.1 way Americans find significant others, some experts suggest), and facilitating a passive job search. And, needless to say, it allows us to satiate our voyeuristic desires to peer into others’ lives and points-of-view, even as people are increasingly pushing their privacy thresholds back against social media’s push forward. Piskorski confirms:
“People just love to look at pictures. That’s the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles.”
Admittedly, this account of some of the impacts of social media on human interactions is incomplete. In particular, I never explore the impact of social media on the presentation of self in everyday life. Undoubtedly, social media have provided an elevated platform for narcissists, self-promoters and online celebrities to broadcast their lives, thoughts and points-of-view. How this affects the general consumer of social media’s sense of self and identity is best saved for another entry.