I got suckered into a point of purchase/cash register impulse buy the other day. It was The Altantic, and the thing that got me was the cover headline “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” I should have known better. After all, this is the same magazine that brought us “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” a few years ago.
As was the case with the Nicholas Carr article (and I can now only assume that Stephen Marche, the author of this Facebook piece, is busily preparing a book-length treatment on his topic), I think the answer to his headline is “not really, but it’s more complicated than that.” Marche is a clear and thoughtful writer, and if nothing else, I can see this being a useful reading in one of the various classes I teach where social media comes up as a topic, particularly undergraduate classes. As I understand it, I think Marche is saying that a) there are lots of things that have increased “loneliness” (and we’ll get to whatever the heck that is supposed to mean in a moment), and b) it depends a lot on how you use Facebook. Marche trots out a lot of pretty well-known bits of pop-research/knowledge on how suburbia, television, etc. (think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) have caused us as a culture to be more lonely, all of which is to say that at its worse, Facebook is one among many contributors to loneliness.
And then there’s this quote paraprhasing John Cacioppo, who Marche calls the “world’s leading expert on loneliness” (and of course I need to point out that being the world’s leading expert on anything is lonely, and being the leading expert on loneliness has to be the most lonely of all):
Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user. “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.” So of social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy. If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.
Duh, right? And I assume we can substitute “talk about issues of the day with people far away from you” or “meet for dinner and drinks” or “invite people to a party” for “football” and be fine.
Ultimately, I think this article raises a couple of questions that are different from the nature of social networks and Facebook per se. First, how is it that psychologists study “loneliness?” Because while Marche does a good job of citing/quoting from the scholarship on this, it all seems kind of sketchy to me– though, of course, this is not my area of expertise. For example, according to Marche, the “best tool yet” for measuring loneliness is the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is basically 10 questions, each of which begin “how often do you feel…” Here’s a link to an interactive version based on the survey; for me, my answers boil down to “it depends.”
Second, I always wonder about the extent to which the issue is not really “loneliness” but the complex emotions and connotations of the word “friend,” and how Facebook’s choice of that word complicates our relations between “friends” on Facebook and our relationship/interactions with Facebook as an interface and a tool. Would there be articles like this one if Facebook had chosen instead to call the people you connect with “contacts,” or “connections,” or “acquaintances?” After all, my Facebook friends in “real life” actually range from “people I care about and love deeply” all the way down to “people I don’t know at all” and even a few “people I actually don’t like or trust.” What if we instead had “followers” ala Twitter, a social network which (at least so far) seems significantly less emotionally loaded than Facebook? What if Facebook had always had categories of designating the degree of friendship and the nature of the connection, sort of like the professional Linkedin?
So, even though Marche is suggesting Facebook as a service is making us lonely and disconnected (and it’s not as if he’s the first person to make this claim), I think the real anxiety around Facebook is with its implications on “friendship.” Facebook flattens the inherent hierarchy of friendship and relationships, putting “BFFs,” boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, ex-Sig-Os, frenemies, work colleagues, people you went to high school with, and Velveeta Cheese all in the same big bucket– and let’s not forget that’s a bucket Facebook draws on to sell us specifically targeted ads. It is nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing to think that my friendship status with people and products are on Facebook essentially the same thing.