An extended riff on the impact of social media in The Atlantic asks, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Stephen Marche argues that no, it isn't, but it certainly isn't helping.
Marche suggests a general splay to the pattern of our acquaintances in this era of social media. However, that widening-out has also brought with it fewer deep relationships. We are, he says, effectively broad but shallow in our contact with others.
LONELINESS IS CERTAINLY not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around. Every time I shop at my local grocery store, I am faced with a choice. I can buy my groceries from a human being or from a machine. I always, without exception, choose the machine. It’s faster and more efficient, I tell myself, but the truth is that I prefer not having to wait with the other customers who are lined up alongside the conveyor belt: the hipster mom who disapproves of my high-carbon-footprint pineapple; the lady who tenses to the point of tears while she waits to see if the gods of the credit-card machine will accept or decline; the old man whose clumsy feebleness requires a patience that I don’t possess. Much better to bypass the whole circus and just ring up the groceries myself.
Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.
But the price of this smooth sociability is a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfillment. Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting....
... a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and ... instant and total connection is no salvation.
As an act of noticing a broad, general trend, Marche seems to be saying in a compact essay what people have been saying for years. On the other hand, stories of how social media have brought people together over the miles and years (or more often initially as perfect strangers) and been life-saving are everywhere.
(A recent Mashable infographic from a recent survey drawing on a large sample shows that social loneliness, together with privacy, are matters of concern for Millennials.)