Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alone in a Room With Hundreds of Friends

This month, The Atlantic would like to know if Facebook is the cause of our pervasive loneliness.

Sorry, I don't mean to be presumptuous by implying that you personally are lonely. I'm afraid I don't know you well enough to make that sort of judgement. However, looking over the various statistics sited in the above mentioned article, the barometer gauging societal feelings of interconnectedness points towards gloomy weather. Hence the collective "our." No offense meant.

This question is in no way new. Computers have always been regarded as possibly isolating devices. They require you to focus your attention on a screen instead of the people around you. There's really no way around that fact. It's hard to spend quality time with real people when you are half in a virtual world. The more intertwined with our lives computers become, the more socially shut off we may be. Or so the fear goes. And seeing as more people pay attention to their phones than the people standing next to them, it might not be unfounded.

Social media was meant to be a fix to this technological isolation (as well as a means to collect information on your likes, habits, and consumer preferences... but that's another topic). You could reconnect with old friends and meet new ones, write to them, share pictures of food with them (please someone explain to me why this is a thing), or kill alien hoards with them. The possibilities were limitless. Unless you were on Twitter in which case the possibilities were limitless up to 140 characters. It was going to bring us all together even though we were apart.

And it does exactly that. But there is a problem. Most social media encourages only surface level interactions. Don't get too deep, don't get too personal, and for the love of Pete, don't get depressing. It's sad that your cat died, and we'll all respond with a heartfelt "So Sad :( ". But should you post anything else about your dead cat, you will be unfriended.We've already given our condolences. It even had a sad faced emoticon to show we were serious. Get over it. Don't you have some pictures of your lunch you could post instead?

This is the focus of the Atlantic's article. Social media communication tends towards the side of narcissistic quantity, not two-way quality. Friendships require true communication, emotional connection, and a little face-to-face time doesn't hurt either. They aren't confirmed by clicking a button, but rather long stretches of time. That's what makes them fulfilling (and frustrating). Just reading and "liking" someone's timeline makes you no closer to being friends than reading a tabloid makes you besties with the featured celebrity.

Ultimately, how you choose to communicate is what determines your loneliness or lack thereof. Facebook is just a tool which facilitates that communication, whatever quality that is. You can't blame technology for the way it's used. (You can, however, blame it for the way it's designed. Seriously Facebook... Timeline? Ugh.)

The underlying issue would appear to be a lack of real-life community. You know, like the ones we live and work in? Were we to have close-knit and supportive communities, it wouldn't matter so much whether or not our online life was fulfilling. We'd just go talk with the neighbors more or invite some friends over for dinner. The computer world of socialization would be just one piece of our social lives, not the totality of it.

But in the absence of strong real-life connections, we rely upon our virtual ones to buttress our tenuous feelings of belonging. (Again, I'm speaking in the abstract collective sense here.) Even the most curmudgeonly loner desires a certain amount of validation and acceptance about his or her life. It's a basic need. If we lack a social group to supply that, we can now project that need upon our internet friends. Which is a fool's game because the virtual world isn't sophisticated or complex enough to handle such a task. Someone "liking" your post is hardly the same as someone really taking the time to talk with you about whatever it was your were sharing. It's the difference between the companionship found in a pet rock and that given by a dog.

This is one of the reasons I value working for a library. Libraries are places which can help foster community. It's part of our purpose. Yes, we offer many ways for people to be isolated and alone (books, computers, DVDs, etc.). But on the most basic level, we also offer a physical place for members of our community to gather with no other obligation. You don't need to buy anything or even check out an item. You can just come to spend some time browsing around and running into you neighbors. This is a rare thing in today's fast-paced consumer culture. 

One of the more gratifying things about this job are the moments when I get to speak to a patron as a myself, not as a clerk needing to keep on script. (If anyone has gone to a supermarket and been asked whether or not they need help to the car when they've bought a sandwich because the cashier is required to do so knows how soul killing scripted interactions can be.) A brief moment of two people chit-chatting about books or the news or whatever it is that is currently interesting. Is it a productive or purposeful conversation? Not always. But it's interactions like that, human interactions with real people, that can make one feel more connected to the other folks around them.The more we do it, the stronger our communities become.

All that said, if you are on Facebook, we've got an attractive page with good info you can like. Mileage may vary on whether or not it cures loneliness.
posted by jw