There is yet another article, this time in the Atlantic, asking the question “Does Facebook cause loneliness?” Like many articles on this topic, it ignores an enormous amount of data which –at a minimum- says, nope. (In fact, the main empirical article cited in the paper also says no). Research by many people (most importantly Keith Hampton) show again and again that Internet/Facebook users are less isolated than people who don’t use social media. Yes, there are complicated interaction effects but the simplest empirical answer to the simple form of the question is … no. By most standards of reasonable evidence, the answer is pretty much out there (even if ignored by most articles on the topic).
Why, then, is this question repeatedly invoked? I have a few thoughts on this. Here they are in a hastily written form (on my way to the airport!)
First, the findings I talk about refer to individual level effects. There are also societal effects to consider—and those are harder to measure. Maybe individual Facebook users are not less isolated than non-Facebook users, but maybe we have become more isolated as a society during the period that mediated-sociality has risen.
The answer to that question is yes, at least for closer ties. We are, on average, more isolated, at least in terms of strong ties. Three separate studies say so–and as we say in social sciences, once is a question, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a finding. (That is the General Social Survey with follow-up here, Pew Internet studies written up by Keith Hampton (with others) and a recent study by Matt Brashears).
I also have a paper (still) under review which shows –using the best dataset available—that Internet users fared better than non-Internet users during this period of increasing isolation. In other words, yes, we have less close friends than before, but Internet users are doing better at bucking this trend. I have a good deal of empirical probing of why this is so—I’ll try to write about it later. In short, I think this is because we are shifting from “ascribed ties” –people you inherit as close ties such as your family and your neighbors—to “achieved ties” –people you connect based on shared affinities and with whom you interact using multiple means of communication. It’s clear why Internet plays into this and fights off isolation. People who can use the Internet better to find and/or keep in touch with people with whom they share affinities with are more likely to be able to compensate for losing the neighborhood/family ties.
What data I’ve seen makes a strong case that social isolation is increased by factors like suburbanization, long-commutes, long work hours, decline of community and civic institutions, etc—not online sociality. As I argued, what data we do have argues that social media (and Facebook) works against this.
So, why so many articles like this which concentrate on the social media aspect (rather than things that appear to be a lot more directly related empirically to isolation)? Why does this question resonate so strongly?
I speculate that there are three reasons. Two are straightforward. Third is something I’m working through empirically and conceptually.
One, we are indeed more isolated, on average. That is true. And since increasing amounts of sociality are conducted –partially—online, it is a natural human tendency to create a narrative from two occurrences that follow each other. We are more online + we are more isolated = we are more isolated because we are more online. This particular conclusion is, in my read of all the available data, wrong but humans are narrative engines. We make stories whenever we see co-occurrences. (“I had a bad feeling in the morning and I broke a mirror before going out–then I had my car accident.” )
Two, face-to-face sociality *is* the bedrock of human communication. A baby few days old will respond differently to a figure in the shape of a human face compared with the same elements arranged randomly. There is something imitable about smiling with a friend. There’s just no replacement for hugging someone. That does not mean that people cannot have meaningful interactions that are not face-to-face, nor does it mean that online interaction is causing less face-to-face interaction. (As I said, data shows that people who interact online socially *on average* also interact more offline socially. It is a more-more setting. More social people are more social—online or offline.)
The third reason that I think such articles are still so popular is a phenomon that I’ve dubbed cyberasociality.
Cyberasociality is the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate toothers via social media as they do when physically-present. (Tufekci, 2010)
I’ve already published a bit about it (here) and I have an article I wrote about it that I will probably just put in my blog before it finishes going through the academic cycle. (Oh, what the heck, Internet. Here’s my unpublished paper on this. I presented these findings at last year’s American Sociological Association conference).
My argument is, briefly this: Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.
For example, reading is a hack of the brain. It is hijacking our visual systems and appending them to our oral/language centers (All human language is primarily oral. Writing is a recent, thin, barely-hanging there add-on). That is why you don’t need to train ordinary children to speak, but you need to train all children to read. Reading is something we use our cognitive capacity and neural plasticity to achieve. It is not an innate human ability.
Similarly, face-to-face sociality is a deeply-embedded feature. We react to faces and immediate presence in a very strong, very visceral sense. Online –and all mediated– sociality needs a similar hack into our sociality systems. We need to convert mediated-interaction to the same kind of unmediated interaction version we have to get evoke a similar reaction to “present in-person” sociality.
And I believe that this is easier for some people than others. Some are more disposed. There are also questions of technical skill, access, usability, etc. But I believe there is also an underlying personality variation as well.
My data says this is not a cohort effect. I’ve found strong and consistent distinctions among the college-age population. It’s simply not that the young are cybersocial and the old are not. It’s that different people are differently cybersocial. And for those who are cyberasocial, trying to describe online social interaction as “real” is like trying to describe colors on a oil-painting to someone who is color-blind indoors-and then to claim that there is a connection between the colors on the palette to colors of a sunny day.
They look, they squint, they think, they ponder and simply decide everyone else is crazy. There is a lot more to say but I’ll end with a quote from my (unpublished) paper. (My earlier published paper is here) :
I define the topic of my paper as explaining this:
Hardly another month goes by in which there isn’t a new article or book released on the
question of whether the Internet brings us together or separates us. Alternating between
lamentations by pundits on how social media tools are allegedly hollowing out our relationships
(Deresiewicz 2009; Mallaby 2006, Turkle, 2011), or by breathless reporting in newspapers about
how everything is now online, the debate refuses to die, and often seems unaffected by empirical
research on these topics.
And after going through the empirical findings, I speculate that “cyberasociality” is a real phenomenon, that it is not a cohort/age effect, and that for some people, online sociality is hard to comprehend because of deep reasons including being less disposed to converting mediated-sociality to broader sociality.
It remains a possibility that there are people for whom text is unable to evoke the same deep reaction embodied physically co-present interaction arouses. Such an inability, or an unwillingness, could be seen akin to another modern ailment, that of dyslexia (Wolf, 2007). The ability to convert alphabetical symbols to words, and then to seamlessly convert those words into meanings, is one of the more remarkable feats of the human brain and is mastered by most who are given persistent and competent instruction. However, for some segment of the population, this leap may remain unattainable and pose great difficulty even though the person in question may not suffer from any other disadvantage such as technological incompetence or inability or fear of using computers for instrumental purposes.
Whatever causes dyslexia, it would not have been detectable in a pre-literate population as among such people, words are always and only just sounds. In fact, linguists often caution against our tendency to equate words with letters and remind us that language is primarily aural and the transition to visual language is a late development. (Ong, 2004). Dyslexia emerges as a disadvantage only as a society incorporates the ease of use of the written word into the expected competencies into its portfolio, similarly, the increasing incorporation of online-sociality may expose a segment of the population that is similarly disadvantaged from being able to use these technologies as effectively as others.
Thus, conceptually, I propose a modern condition, named cyberasociality, which represents the possibility that some segment of the population remain unable or unwilling to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present; and that this is not necessarily related to their general levels of sociality or to their competence with or use of computers or similar digital devices.
Finally, these findings may shed light on why the debate about the possibility of establishing deep bonds online refuses to die in spite of empirical findings that show that this is actually happening, at least for a segment of the population. 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.
Finally, I want to really, really emphasize that my argument is not a judgement or a statement of what’s inferior. I think this is part of normal human variation. I started looking into this as I was more curious about why this debate seemed to never die and this, in my opinion, is part of the story.
PS. Will add more links later! On my way to the airport now:-)