We live in a hyper connected and extremely accessible technological age. There’s not much we can do anymore without use of our cell phones. We use email for work, texting to connect with friends, Instagram to show photos, Facebook to advertise business and show our lives to loved ones. Wherever we turn social media can be extremely prevalent and useful. On the other hand, people who overuse social networking sites in an effort to stay connected to others run the risk of paradoxically feeling more isolated and alone.
The size of people’s networks is an indication of the type of connections people are cultivating on social media. The size of somebody’s online social network does not have an effect on the size of actual offline network nor on emotional closeness to people in real life. Psychological studies show that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people, known as the “Dunbar Number.” If people on social media can have hundreds or thousands of friends/followers how can one keep up with so many people? A social media friend is not expected to come over for dinner, bring chicken noodle soup if you are feeling sick, or send a birthday card. Instead social media develops and cultivates “weak ties” – loose acquaintances of people that are less known, like a long ago friend, a stranger who compliments your hat, or someone you met at a conference. Rapid growth of weak tie relationships can be beneficial for people to gather and share information. They can also be challenging because weak tie relationships leave people spreading their emotional energy thin, thus leaving less room for offline intimate relationships. People put energy time and effort into cultivating broad weak tie social relationships and the have less energy connecting offline in person.
People who use social media frequently like to see what their friends are doing. They also like to post updates about their own lives. Online contact like this is called ambient awareness, or where someone feels near or close without actually communicating directly. Public postings can feel like an intimate connection, but it does not actual require bonding connection. When you scroll Facebook or Instagram it doesn’t matter who is posting when you scroll idly through status updates and photo posts. You move seamlessly from one person to another without actually sharing your life in an intimate way with anybody. This can result in feeling like you are connected, but not actually having any sort of intimate connection or conversation and thus isolating you further from others.
Every day people check professional and personal social media accounts, texts, and emails, and move through these identities fluidly. This rapid cycling through various communication media and across different identities stabilizes into a continual co-presence; a world of continual partial attention. Exchanges become brief or nonexistent – it might feel like enough just to look and see what people are doing then actually be around other people. The outcome can be a feeling of aloneness even while at the same time we are virtually surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people.
What is so bad about feeling alone? There is a difference to feeling lonely and alone vs. a peaceful solitude. When was the last time you were really alone? Is the goal now to never feel alone? If we cannot self soothe or feel comfortable alone we are now using social media as a crutch to avoid discomfort. It can also be a fun pastime or a break as long as we are conscious and deliberate about the types of connections we make while offline.