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Why Facebook Isn't Making Me Lonely

Harping on about not being on Facebook, it has been said, is the modern-day equivalent of boasting about not having a television. And of course, there is plenty to criticize Facebook for: its dubious privacy practices, the censorship of walled gardens, and the potential threat to the open web.

But sometimes criticism of Facebook -- and criticism of social media and digital technologies in general -- falls into a familiar groove: one that has a tendency to ignore much of the empirical research on the subject, an over-reliance on whimsical anecdotal evidence, and often a projection of the author’s own foibles and predilections.

The latest article in this vein is a cover story in "The Atlantic" by Stephen Marche titled, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"

Marche contends that "we have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier."

"We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible," he writes. "We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information."

In America there is not just rising isolation, but rising loneliness. It is not just about being alone, but about being lonely. "We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy," Marche argues. According to the author, that is partly due to a decrease in "confidants" -- defined as quality social connections.

As other commentators have pointed out, Marche is right about the rising isolation -- that has been well documented. However, the problem is where Facebook fits into all of this. Much of the research and expert opinion the author draws on in fact leads us to the conclusion that Facebook does not make us lonely. As Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, argues in a blog post, research does show that we are indeed more isolated than before (in terms of strong ties) but that Internet users are doing better at bucking that trend than non-Internet users. As Tufekci points out, this isolation could be due to “suburbanization, long commutes, long work hours, decline of community and civic institutions.” But of course an article titled "Do Long Commutes Make Us Lonely?" just wouldn’t hit the mark.

So Facebook might compound existing loneliness, it might draw the lonely onto its pages, but it doesn't make us lonely. Marche's piece is a great read and he raises plenty of interesting points, but he tends to universalize his own experiences, as we humans tend to do:

It's a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends' and pseudo-friends' projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.

When I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they're all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmers’ market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable. A lot of other people doing the same thing feel a little bit worse, too.

Fair enough, but if we are going to universalize our own experiences of Facebook, let me do the same.

In the last year, two momentous things have happened in my life. My son was born and my father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In this melange of inordinately wonderful and desperately sad times, Facebook (or more accurately, my friends on Facebook) has been a wonderful companion.

In critiques of Facebook, such as Zadie Smith's in "The New York Review Of Books" last year, there is a constant refrain: that of the superficiality of the "like." Marche calls it "the lazy click of a like." "Likes" are seen as remarkably unprofound throwaway actions, at the expense of more sophisticated and complex things we do offline, like calling someone or writing a letter, say. (Wrapped up in this is the idea that our Facebook selves are subpar approximations of our real selves.) One of the experts quoted in "The Atlantic" piece says that Internet communication allows only "ersatz intimacy." Another expert says "composed communication" is more satisfying than "one-click communication":

"People who received composed communication became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication experienced no change in loneliness,” Burke tells me. So, you should inform your friend in writing how charming her son looks with Harry Potter cake smeared all over his face, and how interesting her sepia-toned photograph of that tree-framed bit of skyline is, and how cool it is that she's at whatever concert she happens to be at. That's what we all want to hear.

I'll remember that, as "that's what we all want to hear." Far from being empty vessels, however, "likes" -- just like smiles -- are packed full of meaning and multilayered with context. Online interaction works at myriad levels and not everyone in the conversation is operating at the same level.

My son Tommy was born more than eight months ago. A large part of those first few weeks was about documenting his first forays into the world. The photos began in the delivery room: Tommy, bleating for the first time, angry at his ignoble entrance into the world; Tommy, screaming now, his skin chilled by the scale; then, swaddled like Mother Teresa, quiet for the first time in his life after the poking and prodding was over.

A couple of hours later, the first photo, snapped on my iPhone, was on Facebook. Within minutes, there were comments from friends and family welcoming Tommy and congratulating us all. Those congratulatory comments and "likes" were not meaningless to me. For me, the immediacy of communication, the desire to share with us in that moment right there and then, meant as much as a handwritten card or a onesie popped in the mail (those were lovely too). All the “likes” and congratulations were different. Some were from people I hadn't seen in 20 years; others from friends I would have a drink with the next day.

As the days went on, more photos were e-mailed and uploaded onto Facebook: Tommy spread-eagle next to an attentive Tigger; his first bath with a plastic duck; the unfathomable cuteness of dressing little people in oversized clothes. It was an affirmation that the best thing the digital revolution has brought is the ability to share information instantaneously across great distances: My parents, thousands of miles away, could share bath time in real time.

Since my father was diagnosed, we have endeavored to spend much time together as a family. Friends and relatives have descended onto my parents' home and there have been plenty of family occasions packed into a small amount of time.

I have shared many photos of these family moments on Facebook: dinners out, my father holding his grandson, relatives visiting from across the ocean. Some of my friends know about my father's illness; others don't. For those not in the know, they just see standard family photos. But for those who know about my father's condition, they understand the poignancy of these particular moments. They understand that these are some of the last times we will spend together as a complete family.

Thus, their "likes" are not throwaway sentiments at all but rather -- for me -- touching recognitions of meaningful moments in my life. They are the equivalent of smiles, a comforting touch on the arm, a glass raised -- and their various meanings depend entirely on their owners/authors. Some are reminders of tearful talks with certain friends -- yes, real friends and real face-to-face talks! -- about my father's rather sudden decline. Some are from supportive colleagues who might not normally "like" such a thing but are offering a brief but appreciative moment of support from afar. And those "likes" are diplomatic -- the likers would not mention my father's health on the photo, as they knew that perhaps not everyone knew. They are not substitutes for longer, more in-depth conversations or more expansive sentiments but are complementary. Because of their contexts, they are laden with meaning. Facebook did not make me feel lonely; quite the opposite, in fact.

Many critiques of social media or the Internet suffer from digital dualism, the idea that the online and offline worlds are completely distinct and not entwined. (More on that here by Nathan Jurgenson.)

The supposed superficiality of the digital world is always juxtaposed next to a pristine, well-ordered "real world," where we never act as approximations of our true selves, nor are our meanings or sentiments ever truncated or dumbed down. Anyone who has ever made polite small talk in the supermarket with someone they don't like very much, or anyone who has stood through the dreariest of business lunches, can attest that the “real world” just doesn’t work like that. Just like in social media, our emotions on display are not necessarily our true emotions. And thank God for that!

One of Marche's most interesting arguments is that Facebook can make us feel worse about our own lives as we see a constant stream of other people's happiness. That may well be true, but is that so different from the “real world”? We are constantly bombarded with implicit critiques of our worth or our social standing. Our real-world interactions -- friends boasting of fabulous new properties they have bought, or tales of infants of comparable age accomplishing Herculean tasks while my son lies contentedly on his back shouting at a flying monkey -- can have the same effect. Every time I park next to a fancy sports car I am reminded of my worth.

Tufekci has a theory, which she calls "cyberasociality" -- "the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate to others via social media as they do when physically present." Tufekci thinks that might be why articles such as "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" are so popular. Perhaps the "cyberasocials" are over-represented in the debate:

It is possible that there are people who are deeply cyberasocial and are universalizing their subjective experience as the human norm, and thus are persistent in their claims that it is simply not possible to establish meaningful friendships using these technologies. Almost akin to a colorblind person insisting that all this talk of red and green must just reflect something superficial or made-up, and simply does not reflect a real division, the cyberasocial continue to write newspaper articles and even books lamenting the spread of these technologies. That is not to say that these technologies are not ever disruptive of sociality but that their effect may be much more complicated as some of the critics would claim.

Of course, all this debate is healthy. But whenever I read articles such as Marche’s, I can't help feeling there is a rather benign and intellectual attempt to monopolize meaning and to establish rules about what constitutes true and worthy sentiment.

Zadie Smith did the same when she rather sniffily dismissed online memorials to dead teenagers, with their poor grammar, kisses, and LOLs. There might, after all, be as much meaning embedded in a LOL or a smiley than there is in a handwritten letter of condolence. But Smith seemed to be saying: My communication good, yours bad.

In "The Atlantic," Marche asks: "Is Facebook part of the separating or part of the congregating; is it a huddling-together for warmth or a shuffling-away in pain?" For me, it’s the huddling-together for warmth and, in both wonderful and hard times, it's about finding joy and solace in something as simple as a "like."