Does Facebook Make You More Lonely? The Science Behind Online Conversation


Yesterday, Facebook revealed the share price range for its IPO, which is set to take place on May 18. Shares will start out being offered at somewhere within the $28 - $35 range, and they will be available under the symbol “FB.”

If you’re a practical person -- interested in Facebook’s meteoric rise from business to epoch-changer -- then you’ll be satisfied with the coverage about how much money it’s expected to make, who’s investing in it (Buffett isn’t by the way), and the video of Zuckerberg walking would-be investors through the halls of his social media palace. 

However, you might have more fundamental questions about the company, like what does it mean for human relationships and the way it is altering society. Usually, you can’t interest people in these types of questions, but it seems that Facebook is special. It’s technology, business, and ideology all at once. Facebook can currently claim nearly 1/5 of the world’s population as its users, a statistic that makes it one of the most widespread cultural experiences in human history. With power like that, Facebook has made part-time philosophers out of us all. For that I’m thankful.

But what exactly is the “big” question that Facebook asks us to ponder? Indirectly, it asks us to think about the value of human relationships and the essence (what philosophers sometimes call phenomenology) of living with others. I say “indirectly” because the main way these questions enter into the public discourse – enter into the minds of a mass audience – is through a much more concrete question. Apparently, many people want to know: Does Facebook make us lonely? Just look at some articles from the past few weeks: "The Flight From Conversation" (NYT 4/21), "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" (The Atlantic, May), "Social Media’s Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships" (The Atlantic 4/25), "Is Facebook Making You Lonely? Don’t be Stupid" (Forbes, 4/12), "Is Facebook Really Making People More Lonely?" (The Week, 4/16).

My guess is that we want to know about Facebook and loneliness because it’s a symbol. It stands for social media, for connection, and for the various communication technologies sweeping over our lives. And sure enough, most people have opinions one way or another. Some are social media enthusiasts and others are skeptics, but everyone agrees that something is going on.

I do think that Facebook threatens certain types of valuable relationships. It doesn’t make us more lonely, exactly. More likely, it makes us more narcissistic, but even that word is inaccurate. Here’s the best way I know how to put it: Facebook threatens our ability to be authentic.

Sherry Turkle, in her recent article, makes this argument by talking about the lost art of conversation, but I think her point can be made more concrete. We can nail down what the “art” of conversation is and why it relates to authenticity.  

Human language works by automatic processing, which is what allows us to talk fluidly. In ordinary conversation, there is no need to plan what one will say next; one simply says it. This power is greatly aided by other perceptual systems that run on automatic too. We automatically react to facial expressions from the person we’re speaking to and there are neurons geared toward taking in the faces of others as a gestalt, or a single unit. We know at a glance whether someone is angry or happy, and we can form our words on that basis.

Notice that the flip-side is also true. Giving a speech or a monologue is hard. We pause and say “uh” a lot. Why is that? One hypothesis is that talking with another person is easier than giving a speech because the brain automatically responds to cues from a conversational partner. When we talk with someone, we’re thinking in common with them, and both members of the conversation exploit the sentences of the other to move forward as if each person were placing the next rung of the ladder for her partner to climb. 

In other words, when we talk with someone else, we’re not just talking faster and better than we would online; we’re engaging with someone in a different mode. We’re being authentic. Because we do not plan our words, we are most “ourselves” when we let the magic of our automatic processing power respond seamlessly to the situation. 

Online conversation makes this difficult. There is time to think, draft, and redraft. Silence is ok and there’s not really any such thing as timing or rhythm. Here’s an example: When we talk with someone online, we often type “lol,” and we type this because even though we are not laughing, we believe what the person said is, in fact, funny. Instead of laughing, we type as if we’re laughing, and this is a small snapshot of the inauthenticity of our online personas. 

The counter example to my claim about authenticity is of course letter writing. What could be more revealing or personal than an artfully crafted letter? Perhaps nothing, but notice that emails and chats are not like letter writing. They are designed for speed – more and more speed. They are not, by and large, used to craft heartfelt paragraphs. When letter writing as an art form was at its height, people wrote letters because it took time to talk by letter. You couldn’t get a response immediately so one had to be declarative, complete, and informative. Email and chat are so fast that they have moved closer and closer to talking (again, “lol,” “brb,” and other informal phrases are evidence), but they can never fully be conversational because we can plan our words and edit them, and make them just so before we present them to a conversational partner.

One further argument against Facebook: When we structure our interactions with others via social network, we also deny ourselves a second type of authenticity, which is the way we confront randomness and chaos in the social world. Think about listening to the radio. Part of what makes listening to the radio fun is that we don’t have complete control over what we listen to. We can pick the station, but the songs are not up to us, and so we hear our favorite songs as gifts, and we more patiently tolerate the songs we wouldn’t ordinarily listen to. We are, to use a cliché, experiencing the spice of life, which is its essential unpredictability.

When we organize our lives through social media, we are limiting randomness and increasing control. If I’m waiting by the bus, I don’t have to talk to the person next to me because I can call my friend. And even if I wanted to talk to the person next to me, that person might be talking to her friend. As social networking grows, the people I interact with become more and more under my control (my followers, my friends, etc.), and this is not an unqualifiedly good thing, because the charm of society, of a social world, is partly its uncontrollability. I may be forced to talk with someone I don’t easily relate to or induced to speak with someone that intrigues me, and I’m much less likely to do that if I can instead chat with my dad or hear about my friend’s next project. (Think about what it would be like if we made social media only semi-social. Would this mean creating Pandora-like channels for our friends, so that we can’t control our every social interaction? I don’t know how this would work, but it’s the ethic I’m going for.)

“Wait a minute,” you’re likely protesting, “how could it be bad that people are better able to talk to people that they want to?” It’s bad for the same reason that it’s sometimes bad that people can eat the food that they want – they get fat. The modern economy has supplied us with abundant calories, processed foods, and sugars, and when this environment interacts with our ancestral brains, we’re tempted to eat too much. 

Sociality works the same way. We are social creatures and so feed off sociality. But we need a healthy diet, which means time alone, time with loved ones, and time with strangers. If left to our own devices, we can oversocialize.

The comparison between food and sociality is not an idle one. A study at the University of Chicago, for instance, found that people who completed a survey about how to interrogate detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the presence of a friend, were much more likely to request harsh treatment. Other studies confirmed the insight that socialization is like hunger. When you feel socially connected, you are socially satiated and so spend less effort empathizing with those not part of your group or network. Just as overeating makes us slow and sick, oversocializing can make us numb and narrow-minded.

There are many challenges that come with the technology we’ve created. For one thing, we need to learn more about whether Facebook makes us happier or sadder, lonelier or more fulfilled. This will take clever experiments and more data. But still further, we need to be more sophisticated about how to imagine the effects of social technology. These tools may not give us more or less acquaintances or help us confide in more or less diverse groups of people. Instead, they may alter our interaction with people in new ways that defy easy categorization. We should at least be on guard for that possibility.