Loneliness in the Social Media Era

You’ve probably seen this video, or something like it, making the rounds:

I have a beef with videos like this. It’s taken me a while to put my finger on why, and what exactly the beef is. But I think I’ve figured it out. In general, these are the conclusions these sorts of freak-out videos come to:

  1. We’re all getting lonelier because we give up in-person time for online time.
  2. We’ve gamified social interaction, which places an emphasis on quantity over quality, leading to “collecting friends like stamps.”
  3. We curate what we put online, creating idealized personifications of ourselves for others to envy.

There’s something all of these conclusions have in common with each other.

Why are we assuming the world is full of extroverts?

I don’t know about you — and I don’t claim to speak for you — but I am not lonely*. I am quite active in social media, and I’m quite active online in general. I work from home, for heaven’s sake. I spend a great deal of time either alone or in the company of one other human. And I love it. Why? Because I’m an introvert. For the uninitiated:

Dr. Carmella's Guide to Understanding the Introverted
One thing this comic doesn’t mention that I want to point out is that extroverts tend to maintain very close friendships with one to three people. Extroverts may also have very close friendships, but that’s not how they tend to prioritize their social time. Extroverts prefer a party to a one-on-one; introverts are just the opposite.

So here’s what I love about social media. It allows me to spend more of my “energy juice” (my dad called it my social battery) on high quality interactions with the people that are most important to me. Put another way, social media allows me to interact with lots of people in a way that doesn’t drain my social battery.

Now, I can hear you say, but the conclusions reached in these videos apply to introverts as well as extroverts! True, but in very different ways. Let’s take them one at a time.

1. We’re all getting lonelier because we give up in-person time for online time.

Remember that extroverts draw energy from being around people. While we’re all naturally social creatures, extroverts in particular need to be around people to be happy. If an extrovert begins to give up that in-person social interaction to be with people, then of course they’ll get lonelier. On the other hand, an introvert probably already doesn’t spend a lot of time with people face-to-face, or if they do, they probably wish they could spend more time alone. A 2002 Israeli study concluded:

It was found that introverted and neurotic people locate their “real me” on the Internet, while extroverts and non-neurotic people locate their “real me” through traditional social interaction.

So who is actually giving up in-person time? Probably extroverts. If an introvert is giving up that time, they may be happier for it (although again, all humans need some degree of social interaction).

2. We’ve gamified social interaction, which places an emphasis on quantity over quality, leading to “collecting friends like stamps.”

The assumption here is that as the number of friends you have increases, the value of each friend decreases. I’m very suspicious of this conclusion in general, for extroverts as well as introverts. While there are probably some people out there that look at the number of Facebook friends they have, versus the number of friends someone else has and laments, I don’t think this leads us to devaluing the friends we’ve got. Gamification may lead some people to accept friend requests from people they don’t actually know, but…does that make them lonelier? Does that devalue the person’s other friends? Do we end up spending more time increasing our friend count than spending time with the friends we’ve got? I don’t think so. This conclusion just doesn’t make much sense to me.

3. We curate what we put online, creating idealized personifications of ourselves for others to envy.

This isn’t a problem unique to social media; this is a “feature” of humanity. We all self-promote, we all leave out details that make us look bad, we all tend to only take pictures at happy times and not sad, we all tend to only update our Facebook status when something good happens. If you’re an extrovert giving up the face-to-face interaction that corrects for this hyper-curation, you will be more apt to think that perhaps everyone else is having a good time except for you.

Conclusion

My point here is that this epidemic of loneliness and the freak-out it’s inspired may not be universal. If an extrovert decides to stay in and browse Facebook instead of go out to a party, they will become lonelier. The same is not true for an introvert. To my knowledge, no study has looked at social media loneliness in extroverts vs. introverts. If anyone knows of one that actually did study loneliness in this way, please share.

If you are one of these afflicted and lonely extroverts, there is a cure. Go hang out with some friends.


* Since my sister moved out of town a year ago, I must admit, I’ve been a little lonely.

About Kelly Carter

I'm a freelance web developer, doing business under the name Rainworks Web Development. I'm a skeptical technophile, voracious reader, softcore gamer, and haphazard tinkerer. I have a long-term partner, a cat, and no time for glass ceilings.

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