Facebook and Loneliness: The Better Question

In 2008, Nick Carr’s article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, touched off a lively and still ongoing debate about the relative merits of the Internet.  Of course, the title was a provocation and perhaps played a role in generating initial interest in the piece. I’ve often wondered whether that was Carr’s own choice for a title or if an editor with the magazine slapped it on as link bait. In any case, I tend to think it does the essay as a whole a disservice. It suggested a straw man to readers before they read the first word of the article. Having used the piece in a variety of classes that I’ve taught, I’m struck by how often readers respond to the title rather than Carr’s argument in the body of the essay.

In this month’s issue, The Atlantic has once again published a cover story bearing a strikingly similar title — “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by novelist Stephen Marche. I suppose it was too tempting to pass up.

This time around, however, the title is at best generically provocative and more like predictably lame. And, as with Carr’s piece, it threatens to obscure the argument.

Take, for example, the quite interesting response to Marche by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. In a blog post, she takes on the article’s title more so than the contents of the article. Or so it seems to me. Tufekci emphasizes the need to rely on empirical research and she cites a number of studies that fail to find a causal correlation between social media and loneliness. In fact, studies suggest that on the whole social media users report lower rates of loneliness than non-users.

But as I read (and reread) Marche’s article, I failed to find Marche himself advocating such a causal connection. In fact, at several points Marche is quite clear in denying that social media (since Facebook, like Google in Carr’s article, stands in for a larger reality) causes loneliness. At the outset of the last main section of the article, Marche writes:

“Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.”

That seems pretty straightforward to me.

In fact, Marche and Tufekci seem to be in broad agreement. Both agree that individuals have become more isolated over the course of the last few decades. Tufekci cites three studies to that effect:

“We are, on average, more isolated, at least in terms of strong ties. Three separate studies say so–and as we say in social sciences, once is a question, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a finding. (That is the General Social Survey with follow-up here, Pew Internet studieswritten up by Keith Hampton (with others) and a recent study by Matt Brashears).”

Marche makes the same point; in fact, I would suggest that Marche’s essay is really about this broad trend toward loneliness and isolation that predates the rise of social media. It is true that Marche clearly thinks Facebook is less than an ideal antidote to this loneliness and that it engenders certain problematic forms of socialization, but he does not claim that social media is making us lonely. It is the unfortunate title that suggests that.

The more interesting part of Tufekci’s response lies in her notion of cyberasociality which she defines as “the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present.” Happily, Tufekci links to an unpublished paper in which she lays out her case for the existence of cyberasociality. She draws on an analogy to dyslexia to argue that some people may have an inherent inability to socialize via text based media. As she acknowledges, this is something she is still “working through empirically and conceptually,” but it is certainly an intriguing possibility.

Interestingly, at one point in Marche’s essay he himself appears to acknowledge as much. While discussing the work of Moira Burke — which (again) he himself notes “does not support the assertion that Facebook creates loneliness” — Marche ventures the following introspective confession: “Perhaps it says something about me that I think Facebook is primarily a platform for lonely skulking.” Perhaps. If so, Tufekci may already be working on the theory that explains why.

The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether Facebook makes us lonely, but whether Facebook is reconfiguring our notions of loneliness, sociability, and relationships. These are after all not exactly static concepts. Here is where I think Marche raises some substantial concerns that are unfortunately lost when the debate goes down the path of determining causality.

What Facebook offers is the dream of managing the social and curating the self, and we seem to obsessively take to the task. The asynchronicity of Facebook is rather safe, after all, when compared to the messy and risky dynamics of face-to-face interactions, and we naturally gravitate toward this sort of safety. I suspect this is in part also why we would sometimes rather text than call and, if we do call, why we hope to get sent to voicemail. It seems reasonable to ask whether we will be tempted to take the efficiency and smoothness of our social media interactions as the norm for all forms of social interaction.

One last thought. It seems to me that we should draw a distinction among desires that are bundled together under the notion of loneliness. There is, for example, a distinction between the desire for companionship (and distinctions among varieties of companionship) and the desire simply to be noticed or acknowledged. C. S. Lewis, eloquent as per usual, writes:

“We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”

Among Facebook’s more problematic aspects, in my estimation, is the manner in which the platform exploits this desire with rather calculated ferocity. That little red notifications icon is our own version of Gatsby’s green light.

4 thoughts on “Facebook and Loneliness: The Better Question

  1. “I’ve often wondered whether that was Carr’s own choice for a title or if an editor with the magazine slapped it on as link bait.”

    Wonder no more: I can’t say whether the editors “slapped it on as link bait” (my guess is that they were more focused on newsstand sales than on links), but the title came from the editors, as titles of magazine and newspaper articles almost always do. As a former magazine editor, I can attest to the fact that authors stink at coming up with good titles for their own articles. I think my working title was “Think Fast,” which isn’t terrible but isn’t exactly an eye-grabber.


  2. “The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether Facebook makes us lonely, but whether Facebook is reconfiguring our notions of loneliness, sociability, and relationships. These are after all not exactly static concepts.”

    I’d agree about the non-static character of these concepts. Some more historical considerations of these emotions could help to deepen (and give more credence) to Marche and Turkle in the face of the sociologist’s critique. I can’t speak specifically to loneliness, but homesickness, which shares some sentiments in common with loneliness, has certainly changed over the course of the last 200 years. Modern Americans are less willing to acknowledge being homesick than their forebears. If the same holds true for loneliness than maybe it’s a little more difficult to take their scientific measure.

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