I really enjoyed reading Stephen Marche’s article “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”. Part of the reason was that, for me, it was a great an example of a wonderfully generous approach to the well trod topic of “Is the Internet making us _______”. Like similar articles it cites multiple medical studies, behavioral experts and neuroscientists, but unlike others Marche doesn’t come down firmly on one direction or the other. Instead he reaches a conclusion that is far more open and generous to all sides of this question. One of the most interesting parts of the article was a sort of chicken and egg discussion of loneliness and its causes. Does Facebook, or any other social platform for that matter, make people lonely? Or does it simply enhance the loneliness that people already bring to the platform? In this context was this intriguing quote:
“One of the most noteworthy findings,” they wrote, “was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.” And they found that neurotics are more likely to prefer to use the wall, while extroverts tend to use chat features in addition to the wall.”
This reminded me of a recent Pew Internet study entitled: “Why Facebook users get more than they give”. In the study, Pew found that “the average Facebook user gets more from their friends on Facebook than they give to their friends.” For me this was a pretty impressive stat, and one that should serve as a barometer for the health and success of any social platform. But the study also pointed out that the reason for this healthy, positive return rests with:
“a segment of “power users,” who specialize in different Facebook activities and contribute much more than the typical user does.”
So if that’s the case, its a simple exercise in logic to say that IF neurotics spend more time on Facebook (especially contributing to the wall) THEN the power users that drive the positive value distribution, (and are responsible for Facebook’s growth), are neurotics
IN OTHER WORDS Facebook succeeds its populated by a lot of neurotics.
Paul Adams has this marvelous statement at the beginning of his recent fMC 2012 talk, (its at about 4:30 in), discussing how humans have historically adapted to new communication technologies:
“People applied the ways they worked with existing media to the new media”
In the same way I think we are now all too busily applying our own values of society and behavior to platforms and ways of connecting that we simply don’t fully understand. Into we inject into that equation our own values of loneliness and what it means. What I found generous about Marche’s article is that he’s open to the option that the idea of loneliness has changed over time and that Facebook and other social media are less enablers and more participants. Lonely people in real life are likely to be lonely on Facebook, and extroverts in real life will remain extroverts on Facebook. And neurotics? Marche doesn’t address this in great detail with the exception of a discussion around our changing perceptions of narcissism, or as he calls it “the flip side of loneliness”.
A lot of this reminds me of debates I recall 10 or 15 years ago about getting more computers into classrooms. The reasoning for parents was, aside from more techno gloss, that computers would help their kids would learn more and more effectively. As time passed it seemed that the only thing computers did was help kids create PowerPoint presentations with lots of cheesy transitions. In other words, we learned that computers were a tool and that actual learning still had to be done the hard way. It’s only in the past few years, with initiatives such as Khan Academy or the exciting new programs being developed to teach coding to kids, that we are finally finding a the right place for computers in the education process.
This change took a time and an understanding grown out of experience and failure that new tools, platforms or technologies cannot instantly redefine who we are or create new norms. They are waiting for us to get there. As Marche puts it:
“Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful.”