Written for the RSA -25/05/14
Ten years ago we’d never heard of names like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. And yet today, for many, they are modern pillars of daily communication. Social media has become an omnipresent host to our daily interactions with 72% of all internet users now active on some form of social media. We have an array of social media outlets to suit every kind of action, personality type and human expression- both newsworthy and banal – and our engagement online is increasingly unwavering; we send around 500 million tweets per day and spend on average around 15 hours and 33 minutes a month on Facebook, for example.
Social media has revolutionised the way we disseminate and receive information. While there are benefits to this, how does it affect the way we communicate with each other, who we choose to interact with and most of all how we feel? The video, The Innovation of Loneliness (above) is an effective and terrifying short film that in its essence presents us with the hard contradictory truth we’ve been avoiding; while we’ve never been so well ‘connected’ we have never felt so lonely.
According to The Mental Health Foundation in their report 2010 The Lonely Society, 1 in 10 people in the UK often experience loneliness. Tellingly, close to 60% of those surveyed in the 18 to 34 age group spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared with 35% those aged over 55. Reasons for loneliness, as the report details, are multifaceted, but let us consider the ever increasing role technology plays within this, particularly within the 18-35 demographic, given their typically high levels of engagement with social media. The rise of ‘Insta- friendships’, connecting and communicating via the online paradigms offered to us mean that an increasing amount of our lives are being carried out virtually, often at the expense of our relationships offline. As reiterated in The Innovation of Loneliness,
“We’re collecting friends like stamps, not distincting quantity versus quality and converting the deep meaning and intimacy of friendship with exchanging photos and chat conversations.”
It is not surprising, then, that the same Mental Health Foundation report found that, 48% of us believe that people are becoming increasing lonelier. For The Innovation of Loneliness, most humans are incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 human beings, and yet paradoxically the mainstream ethos running through social media is that the more ‘friends’ collected, the better. Sherry Turkle, in her TED Talk ‘Connected, Yet Alone’, makes a crucial point when she mentions that communicating in these edited and bite sized versions of ourselves does not provide fertile ground for empathy, real connection and a deeper understanding of human nature.
In a far cry from the messiness of real life friendships and relationships, we are presenting only our best angles, our best days and our most worthy accomplishments to each other. In neglecting our real life connections we erase our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our mistakes- all of which limits our capacity for growth and critical reflection. Moreover for Turkle, we are constructing and living by technologies that give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship which breeds the contradiction in our growing levels of loneliness. In her TED talk, Turkle recalls how many people she spoke to, whilst conducting her research, wished for ‘Siri’ the iPhone function to become more like a best friend. Indeed Spike Jonze’s film Her, a film in which the protagonist falls in love with an intelligent computing system, also speaks to this notion of our increasing expectations and hopes of technology.
However, in following our increased cravings for technological ‘intimacy’, do we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to be there for one another during the emotional, unedited and complicated moments of our lives? How much does the perverse gratification of having our condensed thoughts and opinions ‘retweeted’ and ‘liked’ create artificial responses in place of the more complex and empathetic reactions so often required?
In thinking about how can we truly feel less lonely and genuinely more connected, the saying, ‘a friend to everyone is a friend to no one’ rings true here. In a time where friendships can be disposable, comments edited until perfect and interactions often shallow, we need to question the point to which social media enables or disables our human relationships. And while our relationship with social media is still in its relative infancy, how might we continue to debate what positives to take from social media and the negatives to aspire to leave behind? In the meantime, it’s worth remembering the human relationships that we are shaped by, the ones that enable us to develop as people and the relationships that, for better or worse, cannot be deleted at the click of a button.