A few weeks ago, a friend linked “The Innovation of Loneliness” to me, a viral video which talks about how lonely Facebook makes us, which appears to be a topic of much discussion lately. The video really stuck with me, because my experiences with Facebook and social media have been exactly the opposite.
Until I moved to Hawaii and got into social media, I was a very lonely person. This feeling was at odds with my social life, which was vibrant and very busy. I was out every night and every weekend, experiencing things and hanging out with people, yet I felt utterly alone because I had difficulty relating to and connecting with the people around me. This isn’t to say I didn’t love them and enjoy their company (I did), but I couldn’t talk to them about the things that truly interested me…there were precious few people who were interested in Magic Cards or D&D in Kentucky, or who valued going to a gallery opening over going to a rowdy bar, or who wanted to talk about photography and psychology.
Around the time I moved to Hawaii, Facebook was becoming big and Twitter was just getting going. Determined to make the most of my time in Hawaii, I created accounts for both so I could keep up with local events. I used Twitter’s ability to search geographically to find interesting events and people to connect with. I started doing interesting things as a result, and started breaking news about interesting things going on in Hawaii. I also started posting about my various interests, and connecting with people who shared them. Eventually I started going to tweetups and meeting these people I shared all these interests with. I met my wife and best friend by doing this. Suddenly, my life and heart were full, and I haven’t felt lonely since.
So, what’s the difference between me and the people Facebook makes lonely?
I won’t pretend to know, because people are complex and individual things, but if I may be allowed a generalization, I’d venture to say it’s because I consider Facebook the means to an end, not the end itself, and because I try to be genuine online and off.
When I browse Facebook or Twitter or Google+, I’m looking for people to talk with about whatever it is that we have in common, or that makes us different. I’m looking for an excuse to say hello or meet up with people. When I post something, I’m hoping it’ll brighten someone’s day or that it’ll spur discussion. I am constantly seeking and generating connection, and it’s definitely possible, even over a virtual space.
And yes, I do “collect friends like stamps,” in the sense that I like to have a broad network with more people in it than the 150-or-so people I can possibly know on a truly intimate level. But I don’t do this for the sake of status. Every person I’ve added was followed because there is at least one thing I genuinely find interesting about them, that I can relate to, and that I can connect over. Being a person of many interests, this means that at any given time, there is someone on my social graph who is doing something we can both enjoy.
But these are all people: complex, beautiful, individual. Every one of them probably has as diverse an interest set as I do, and some of them may overlap more on the venn diagram of compatibility than others. These are the people who have become my close friends, simply by virtue of how much time we spend with each other, if only because we run into each other all the time while pursuing our common interests. I can say with some confidence that all my best friends here came to me as a result of social media, to include Dallas, my wife-and-best-friend.
Also, those 150 people don’t have to be the same set all your life. Intimacy is a transient thing, which ebbs and flows. If you have not been in touch with a friend for a few months, you are no longer intimate, perhaps because you had 160 intimate friends and couldn’t keep up anymore. But that does not mean you have to leave them in your past, never to rekindle that close friendship again. I’ve found time and time again that, once old good friends have time in their lives for each other, the closeness rekindles easily.
That transience means it’s okay to have a large network that you can’t be intimate with all at once, because that means there are tons of people you can be intimate with one day, and tons that you can be intimate with once again. Having that many acquaintances just means there are many more people to connect with when the time is right.
The one point “The Innovation of Loneliness” makes that I can agree with is that social media makes it easier to edit ourselves and, if anything, this may be why loneliness on Facebook is, reportedly, so prevalent.
It really is tempting to turn your social media profile into a reflection of the ideal you, a highlight reel of your best moments with nary a mention of your lows. It’s hard to avoid spending time to make your status update read just so, especially in an era where your words can quickly garner the attention of millions of people and potentially ruin your life.
But lemme tell ya, there is no better feeling than being accepted for who you are.
If you don’t give people an opportunity to love you for who you are, and if you don’t work on finding the people who will love you for who you are, then it’s natural to feel alone. And this isn’t an “innovation” brought on by Facebook and social media. I’m aware of the “lonely, isolated person” trope from as far back as the 50’s, when image-conscious housewives edited the outward appearance of their home lives to put off Leave-it-to-Beaver levels of perfection. Editing isn’t just what you choose not to post on Facebook. I know because I felt lonely before Facebook and Twitter and, while I wasn’t editing, I might as well have been for all I got to talk about what truly interested me.
Yes, being genuine is scary–Brene Brown covers that in her acclaimed TED talk–but it’s also vital to connection. Don’t be too afraid, though…if white supremacists can find connection in this crazy world, surely you can find people you love you for who you are!
So, don’t fall into the trap of thinking Facebook is at fault for your loneliness. Facebook, and Twitter, and Google+…they’re all just tools. Blaming Facebook for making you lonely is like blaming an oven for burning your cake. Just like you can learn techniques to use an oven to make a tasty cake, you can learn how to use social tools to remedy loneliness…so if you’re feeling lonely, take a minute to think about why, then work on learning to fix it.
Oh, and for those that say face-to-face connection and physical contact is important: