The Irony of Social Media

Updated: Jan 8

The average Facebook user has close to 350 “friends.” The average person has less than 3 meaningful relationships – people with whom they can truly connect and confide. The irony of the “connectedness” that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram proffer is that we’re more disconnected and lonely than ever.

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone and social connection isn’t the same thing as human interaction. We know, thanks to a growing body of research, that loneliness and connectedness aren’t external conditions; they are psychological states. One can have thousands of online friends, followers, and connections and yet feel completely alone.

Back in the 1990s, scholars started calling the contradiction between an increased opportunity to connect and a lack of human connection the “Internet paradox.” A prominent 1998 study on the Internet paradox by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon showed a correlation between increased Internet usage and increased loneliness.

Fast forward to 2010 when the use of social networks had exploded. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center examined the impact they had on personal and professional relationships. Participants were asked to “share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?” Overwhelmingly, the subjects predicted that the Internet would be a positive force in social relationships in 2020.

Oh, how time flies! Here we are in 2020 with more technology at our fingertips than ever to connect us. And yet, a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults shows that we are more disconnected than ever. In fact, “most Americans lack meaningful relationships and feel disconnected.” Most of us are lonely more often than not.

However, we can’t blame loneliness on Facebook or Twitter. Social media platforms are merely the next evolution in a long history of technology-inspired interference with human interaction. The invent of the telephone decreased the number of people who would have otherwise just walked next door to talk to a neighbor. Self-checkouts at the grocery store enable us to stock the pantry without speaking to a register clerk. Mobile apps and kiosks at fast food restaurants make it possible to order, pay, and pick up a meal without interacting with a single human being.

Every time I go to the post office, I have a choice. I can take my package to the postal worker or I can bypass the postal worker and let the machine serve me. Without exception, I’ll wait for a machine before I wait for the person. I can say that it’s faster and more convenient, but the truth is that technology has just made it easy not to interact with real people.

Which raises a few fundamental questions:

· Have social networks and technology skewed our definition of what it means to interact with others?

· Just as technology makes it easier for people to connect and engage, does it also make it easier for people to disconnect and disengage?

A few weeks ago, I shared a piece titled, How Much is a “Like” Worth? Whether you blog, vlog, or share someone else’s, checking all those looks, likes, and shares is part of the game. The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to two neurotransmitters: dopamine and oxytocin.

Every positive interaction on social media activates the reward center in the brain and gives us a little boost of dopamine. It feels good and so we keep coming back for more. When we connect with others, the brain produces a hormone called oxytocin.  It’s often called the cuddle drug or the love hormone because the strongest surges are produced during breastfeeding and sex.  But, we generate it when we feel a sense of belonging or connection. And, the brain has a hard time differentiating between a face-to-face connection and an online connection.

When we share content that people like and share and comment on, we get a healthy dose of those good chemicals. But, we also gain social currency. Overwhelmingly, people feel better about themselves when others react positively to what they post on social media. Conversely, when people don’t acknowledge us online, our social currency goes down along with our self-image.

When people see and hear me, I know I’m important.

When people don’t see and hear me, I know I’m insignificant.

While technology and social media enables us to interact with people, enhance communication and personal connections, it also provides just as many opportunities for rejection and ostracism as it does for connection. Blocking, unfriending, muting, unfollowing, and ghosting all make disconnecting and terminating relationships quick and easy.

Unfortunately, not painless. While it may seem hypersensitive and dramatic to classify these behaviors as hurtful, it’s the way we are wired to experience social rejection.

The same areas in our brains are activated when we experience social rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why we feel hurt when only 5 people like that selfie or our closest colleagues don’t retweet that LinkedIn article. It’s why ghosting is considered a form of emotional cruelty.

The irony of social media lies in the illusion of connection. We look to technology to engage with others and that same technology makes it easier to disengage and protect ourselves from human to human interaction. Never before have we had more opportunity for social interaction. Perhaps it’s time to redefine the meaning of engagement.