We’re Always Connected, Thanks to Social Media. Why Do We Feel So Alone?

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Netflix’s The Politician isn’t a show I’d recommend. But it does offer some interesting thoughts on what it means to grow up in the social media age. At one point, main character Payton frets that he doesn’t have the ability to feel, in the same way that everyone else does. His mother says it’s only natural when everyone shares everything on social media.

“Your generation got the terrible idea that it was best to vomit every thought and feeling all over each other,” she tells him. “It’s a pandemic of overcommunication that’s led to an absence of intimacy.”

That line came to mind as I read Nicole Karlis’ article “How Facebook Is Profiting Off of Our Loneliness” on Salon.com. Karlis was writing about Facebook’s new dating feature called, naturally, Facebook Dating. Facebook’s creators say it provides a more “authentic look” at a prospective love match than traditional dating sites.

Karlis expressed skepticism from the get-go:

It goes without saying that it is presumptuous for the company to suggest human Facebook profiles are “authentic” reflections of ourselves, especially when Facebook sees its human users as data points to make a profit from. It is also brazen to suggest that humans are still buying the narrative that meaningful connections can be made online, one we fell for over a decade ago, before the research spoke for itself.

Fellow Salonist Amanda Marcotte suggested that the dating app wasn’t necessarily a conduit for single folks to find new love as much as it would be for married folks to find new affairs (through its “secret crush” feature). “Facebook just set up an adultery superhighway,” she wrote.

If Facebook’s dating feature is used as Marcotte says it could be, that’s a pretty big issue. But it seems like it’s just an extension of what social media itself encourages: That relationship itself is increasingly less a product of live, in-person interaction and more about online missives. Forget face-to-face: It’s all about Facebook-to-Facebook. Even Facebook’s own post about the dating feature makes reference to the idea of relationships not being real until they’re “Facebook official.” (It’s a phenomenon I hinted at in a previous blog post, as well.)

Listen, social media has its uses. I use social media services both professionally and personally, and I have made connections—and even friends—through them. I enjoy hearing from old high school chums through Facebook. I dig talking movies with new pals on Twitter—folks I’ve never met in person and maybe never will.

But many of these sites (and perhaps Facebook is the worst) seem to be aiming less at being an ancillary tool in keeping up our relationships—akin to, say, the handwritten letters of an earlier age or the not-smart phones of my childhood—and more an intrusive third wheel. You can’t get together without social media tagging along.

It makes sense, at least from their perspective. The business plan of every social media network is dependent on high usage: Companies like Facebook have an economic incentive for you to use them as often, and for as long, as possible. They make the experience as compulsive—as addictive—as they can. So when I hear the phrase “Facebook official,” it comes with a creepy tang to me: It suggests that Facebook is (or should be) the prime platform for relationship—the place where we express what’s really important to us. Online likes and comments become the currency of relationship.

That’s a load of bunk, of course. And yet, many of us kinda-sorta push that narrative. We regurgitate a lot of stuff on social media that, in years past, we’d share only with our closest friends. But  when we’re sharing every thought and feeling with our followers, what do we reserve for our friends?

When I was in junior high, my friends and I passed a lot of notes in class. It was kinda fun, and some of what was written in those exchanged notes could be kinda witty or pithy or whatnot. To me, it seems like today’s social media—at its best—can serve us a little like those classroom notes did. They provide a brief, innocuous moment of connection not across the classroom, but across the world.

But that’s not the stuff of real relationship. Connection requires more than a connection point. It’s the stuff of shared space, of moves and inflections and gestures. Most of all, it requires time. We’ve imagined that relationship is as easy as “liking” a post or offering a one-sentence message of condolence in a moment of unspeakable grief.  We’ve been encouraged to imagine friendship as simply a shared collection of words and pictures, missing the intangible magic of it all.

Facebook and other social media networksattempt to help fill the void in our lives—to help us, through their bevy of services and world of billions of users, feel less alone.

But our loneliness can’t be salved by billions. It can only be addressed by one person, sitting on a couch or across a coffee table from us—not firing off pithy missives at random, but listening, then talking in turn.