Is Facebook Really Making Us Lonely?

We aren’t lonely sailors in a vast, empty Internet ocean so much as people using Facebook to connect to the many people who have pooled around ideas, interests, and other real, human interactions.

I read a blog post  a while ago, written by a man named Stephen Marche,that asks, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

It’s a great article–rather long, but well researched and well thought out. It uses as a hook, the story of a former Playboy Bunny and B-movie star, who died alone in her apartment. Her mummified body was found weeks after she passed, surrounded by hoarded possessions and a still-glowing computer screen.

In the face of this, the author asks, “Is this who we have become?” It made me wonder. Are we just a lonely collection of individuals connected by wires and the window dressing of “friends” and “like” buttons?

Marche brings up arguments, both pro and con, quoting experts and puzzling over the meaning of the research they present. In the end though, he never manages to convince me that Facebook has in any way transformed us from highly social beings to a collection of near zombies, glued to the technology tit of the Internet.

Sure, Facebook can be like crack to an addict, as Marche asserts. It very well may feed a growing narcissism in our society. The research is inconclusive. Still, what it comes down to for me is something Marche brings up late in the article. That is, despite all the power we attribute to Facebook, it is still just a tool.

Marche says that in the past we were more likely to engage with people rather than machines, to talk with the neighborhood grocer, for example when we went out to buy a steak. While this may be true, lives absent the Internet and other machines like automated check outs, were mired in interactions with people with whom we likely had no real connection beyond the fact that we saw them regularly to say hello. With Facebook, it can be argued that the opposite is true. Particularly when it is used deliberately, with a plan and purpose, Facebook may encourage deeper connections than were possible in the past–and more of them to boot.

Think about it. Pre-Facebook, how likely would it have been for you to reconnect with childhood friends, long-lost family, or high school buddies?  Even given the opportunity to reconnect, how likely would it have been for you to stay in touch? With Facebook, we are granted the opportunity to get back in touch, to share photos and tell stories of our lives to people with whom we have history. While this has gotten a bad rap at times when people use Facebook as a new way to brag, you can’t discount the fact that interactions are at least just as often about sharing information and spreading ideas.

This remains true in marketing as well as in personal interactions. With Facebook, your posts shouldn’t be about crowing about the wonders of your business so much as about sharing and interactions.

So, if you are grocer, say, in the age of Facebook, you don’t have to worry that a shipment of steaks just arrived and I am in the mood to chat about what I’ll be making for supper that night. With Facebook, you can manage the conversation by sending out recipes for supper, along with coupons, invitations to tastings and contests, and maybe even photos of you and your employees sending holiday cheer or telling about a new project that makes you proud. In return, you can gather intelligence about people’s interests, likes and dislikes—and then respond to those in meaningful ways that can help build customer loyalty. It’s like being a neighborhood grocer, who meets up regularly with customers, but now can do it on a larger scale and much more effectively than was possible in the past.

The error I think Marche makes in even asking the question of whether Facebook is making us lonely, is that he tries to compare our lives to the lives of those who lived in the past. The research he points to shows that there are higher levels of loneliness these days—or admitted loneliness and narcissism. Still, there is no real correlation shown…and that’s not surprising. That’s because the Internet is not like other technologies that came into our cultures and even changed our lives. If you consider something like television, for example, which had an enormous impact on society, you might be able to find cause and effect. We watched more TV and became bigger consumers thanks to the golden age of advertising that ensued. With the Internet though, you aren’t talking about a piece of technology that impacted society in profound ways, so much as a total paradign shift, where the entire world entered a sort of feedback loop where a tool came into being that impacted every facet of the lives of nearly everyone on the planet, who in turn impacted the Internet, until the world appeared transformed into a new place, with new ideas, new ways of relating to people, new opportunities, and new pitfalls that we never could have seen coming from the vantage point of days gone by.

Unlike television, which changed some things, the Internet has affected everything from medicine to communications to business to personal interactions and entertainment—and it’s done so not just in how we do things, but how much, how well, and how often. It’s as if someone changed the composition of the air we breath, and we, being adaptable and resourceful, changed as well.

Is Facebook making us lonlier? I say no. Rather, I think Facebook, like many things on the Internet, is making us more aware, more available, and more able to Interact on a scale never before possible. Suddenly, we can see and even begin to understand, the size and complexity of the world, and the social networks around us. This makes it possible for us to fathom our relative insignificance in new ways, while at the same time, feeling the power each of has to reach out and talk to an enormous audience. In my case, I have no research to back this up, but in thinking about what Marche says and the research he mentions, I would guess that our sense of isolation is more a factor of that than of Facebook holding us hostage in front of a computer screen.

Perhaps this is why, more than ever people are looking to band together into groups that help them feel more connected. Thanks to the Internet, we can do that more effectively than ever before—through Facebook, but also through sites like Meetup.com, which allows people with similar interests to find each other quickly and efficiently and to turn Internet interactions into personal encounters.

Going back to the marketing aspect then, to be effective in using Facebook, or any Internet tool, think first about who your audience is and why they might come to you to satisfy feelings of belonging, acceptance, and fulfillment. Then provide information and ideas that encourage them to see you as the “neighborhood” grocer, who offers a friendly smile, great advice–and oh, yes, the goods they came to buy.

 

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