People can connect more ways than ever thanks to social media and other technology. Don’t we have it better than any other generation before? People didn’t previously have time to take surveys about being lonely. Whether it’s through Skype or instant sharing of family photos, social media has allowed families to stay close despite the demands of a modern economy that can disperse them across the globe. It’s hard to imagine having everything and feeling that disconnected.
That makes a recent survey revealing the prevalence of loneliness pretty surprising. From The American Spectator (emphasis added):
The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely…the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in ‘social isolation’ and ‘a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.’
In an era of instant communication via cell phone and e-mail, some would argue that it doesn’t make sense that people are lonely.
Could it be that social media has proved Andy Warhol right? Warhol famously claimed, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” We can now carefully curate our lives on social media, creating a false “celebrity” persona to project to the world. Social media tools can be a great equalizer, allowing us to glamorize our lives for popular consumption – just like celebrities. It has even enabled some to become celebrities without the traditional gatekeepers sanctioning their entry. But celebrities are constantly lamenting, “People don’t realize how lonely you are”. Perhaps now everyone can experience the downside of stardom.
Whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence noting that a Dior ad “doesn’t look like me at all,” or Kate Hudson preferring sweatpants to designer gowns, celebrities seem to be in perpetual conflict with the demands of their public image. Perhaps we are all now getting a taste of the same. People pick the pictures where everyone is smiling. A photo where your kids threw a tantrum that tore at your soul isn’t posted. The predominance of sharing artfully cropped and filtered images may subtly nudge us to keep silent about our less glamorous travails.
Just like celebrities, on social media no one wants to hear how bad you have it. In fact, social media editors now know positive stories get more traction than negative ones. No wonder someone started Upworthy. Worrying about how your vacation stacks up to a Facebook friend’s feels like a peak first world problem, but that act of comparison can lead people to believe everyone else has it better than they do. Are we so focused on public relations that we forgot about the relations piece? Our desire to be admired may just stoke envy instead.
Everyone knows someone who is expert at portraying a fake life on social media. Online, you don’t see the moment where the smile doesn’t lift into their eyes when they talk about their significant other or job. People can also overshare and the impacts can be surprisingly harsh.
The act of writing things down has been proven to enhance long-term memory. So what does that mean in a world where we “write down” so much in social media? If our need to connect and share results in showing ourselves at our worst or being deceptive, we may be codifying things about ourselves that we would otherwise have quickly shed. If we blog about our depression, we may be more wed to it. If a moment of poor judgment that results in sharing a picture that harms ourselves, will we feel the need to “own that”? As it’s said, “the internet is forever.” A mistake can’t just be laughed off or known by just a few folks—it remains etched in the ether for judgment, as teens seem to realize more deeply than adults. What happens to a creative process if every idea shared can be brought up years later? Might one decide to remain silent to avoid making a mistake? Angelina Jolie may be now known as a UN ambassador and mom of plenty, but she won’t ever completely shake having worn a vial containing Billy Bob Thorton’s blood. Celebrities have a lot of experience having to live with every moment documented forever and now we are all following a similar trail.
Writing Our Own ‘Riders’
Maybe that’s why we see celebrities build what look like ridiculous bubbles. Celebrity riders are often scoffed in the media. Van Halen famously demanded no brown M&Ms in their dressing rooms. Jennifer Lopez may have perfected riders with a stunning specificity. And don’t leave out Beyonce, who must have a 78-degree room and cayenne-seasoned chicken legs. Instructions like, “Don’t make any eye contact with so and so,” or, “Make sure all these things are available in the trailer” might be the byproduct of a life where harsh critiques are part of the deal. Social media can allow us to create our own “rider.” We can act as our own bodyguard by selectively sharing and reading exactly what we want.
We may self-select for own protection and benefit, but what are the risks to creating this self-imposed isolation?
By granting us the ability to customize our world, technology has also enabled people to be out of sync with others. Whether you are just getting to watch “Breaking Bad” or too busy to see movies until they are on DVD, the explosion of choice and how and where to consume culture has some obvious benefits. It may also be helping untether people from their physical communities.
We can now consume different culture than our neighbor. It used to be that everyone in a community, whether rich or poor, was consuming the same culture. Now people can avoid the feedback loops of a more diverse physical community. This can make interactions in your physical community dissonant. If you spend time in an online community based on your own preferences, you can now cultivate a persona that may not fit in with your own physical community. In some ways, this is positive. People can find and build connections outside of their geographic location. This may comfort people who don’t feel they fit in where they live. Conversely, though, such people can skip the growth that can occur from living in an uncomfortable community. They also deny their community the experience of knowing them and their unique perspective.
Divisions between classes of people are exacerbated when their children don’t go to the same schools, watch the same shows, or converse about the same topics. Celebrities, too, often seem to live by standards that don’t reflect how ordinary Americans live. They can hold outlandish beliefs because they avoid situations where people tell them “no.” Their values often seem more lax, whether it’s a high rate of divorce, drug use, or other excesses. Can average Americans remain more grounded despite our new ability to create our own celebrity bubbles? Or will the temptation to find self-confirming realities decay our moral center? While everyone isn’t as wealthy as celebrities, they do have broad access to technology that allows us to create a world that feels “rich.” We live in a world where a homeless man in New York has a tumblr. You can Pinterest a board of designer clothes you currently can’t afford. That backyard or kitchen you desire can at least live online vibrantly while your physical home remains unchanged. You can become famous by generating selfies on Instagram. You can create virtually almost all the trappings of celebrity except being known.
How Will We Adapt?
This technology isn’t going away, so how we will adapt?
The Good. After happily finding a group of likeminded individuals, people on social media often start to lament that something is missing. They notice the absent din of difference. They then seek out differing viewpoints. In other words, they adapt. Just as with any other medium, the best posts or interactions are often bluntly honest or make you rethink your assumptions. In other words, it’s when people let themselves be known. Great art reflects something that is universally true. Good social media can do the same. It’s just another format to convey your experiences, and people are in the midst of determining how best it can do so. Like all new inventions, it can be disruptive but later prove indispensable. Blaming the tool is like blaming guns. It’s up to people to determine how to best integrate and maximize positive use from social media.
The Bad. The emergence of “trigger warnings,” CEOs fired for their beliefs, and restraining orders against 5-year-olds seems to reflect an urge to make the physical world as customizable as social media. This new “adaptation” to avoid conflict is concerning. While of course people want to avoid conflict, a demand for a life “rider” is likely not satiable without destroying free speech. Avoiding conflict may also exacerbate actual conflicts when a carefully constructed bubble bursts upon confronting with reality. Like an unchecked Lindsay Lohan, our failures may become more spectacular.
The Ugly. Emily Letts, the creator of the first “abortion selfie,” isolated herself in both her physical and social media communities in a pro-abortion world that helped her believe “abortion is a positive experience.” The girls crying in the clinic waiting room in her physical community were too dissonant for Emily, so she used social media to suppress even that feedback. It makes her post-abortion video even more tragic. Something had changed for her, but she didn’t have the frame of experience to express her grief. In the video, Emily’s escalation of commitment is on full display. She was committed to the idea of an abortion being positive as a way to alleviate pain for women. Confronted with the actual abortion, she realized she had ended a life and grieved, but also persisted in confirming her previous inclination. Did social media cause this reaction? No—but it was the handy tool Emily used to perpetuate her self-deception. One does wonder if the act of making the video tightened her commitment to a particular outcome instead of allowing herself to experience her reaction authentically. Of all the ways social media connects us, Ms. Letts used it to sever one of the most precious connections we have.
So What Does This All Mean?
Sadly, people have always been capable of “otherizing.” But social media may add to the sense of division among Americans. It can enhance one’s ability to isolate oneself in a cocoon of agreement. It makes it much easier to dehumanize people with whom you disagree. However, social media can also rapidly provide competing information to change one’s perspective. Social media can be a force for good and can fuel some of our worst impulses. In many ways it may be changing our definition of community. Bedroom communities may be where you sleep, but social media may be where you interact.
So, as usual, it comes down to personal initiative. Are we cultivating a society interested in self-governance? Celebrities may never be “just like us,” but they may be a good example of the risks endemic to isolation and living up to a constructed image. We may all need to develop a much stronger stomach for owning our failures without letting them define who we are forever. We also may need to remind ourselves to let others grow and change. Redemption, tolerance, kindness, and forgiveness will be even more critical features of a successful society in our highly documented and “shared” future.
If people really are lonelier than ever, it should push them to self-correct. Unmet demands to have more high-touch interactions will likely be met by technology and human initiative. Facebook or the next “Facebook” likely will capitalize on your location data to create virtual communities that reflect your actual community. Perhaps it will even be named “MyStreet.”
To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” With each burst of creative destruction that technology brings, there is always a panic that this one will destroy us. No one is stopping you from going over and shaking hands with your neighbor. If this survey is right, your neighbor is probably lonely, too. Stop by and say hi.