The Atlantic asks whether Facebook is making us lonely. About two-thirds of the way through an astonishingly long article it concludes that, no, it isn't.
Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around. Every time I shop at my local grocery store, I am faced with a choice. I can buy my groceries from a human being or from a machine. I always, without exception, choose the machine.
Putting aside this horrible example of the Paragraph 19 Problem, it seems there's no end to demand for these 'is social media making us lonely/stupid/evil/dead/etc?' op-eds - from Sherry Turkle's Bowling Alone (mentioned here) to Nicholas Carr's The Shallows to the, erm, unique work of Baroness Susan Greenfield.
The logic normally comes down to one of those syllogistic fallacies that we use to teach kids about logical error.
- We are lonelier than we were twenty years ago.
- We use online social networks now and we didn't twenty years ago.
- Social networks are making us lonely.
Except of course it's never put so confidently (unless you're Nicholas Carr). It's always phrased as a 'may be', or a threatening 'could be', or a question ('is it?'). Like when expert forecasters tell us confidently that a policy 'may lead to social collapse' (which isn't much of a prediction, now is it?).
All of which is a shame, because this is very simple.
Online networks are a form of social tool: they enable certain forms of social interactions between people - just like telephones, writing, marketplaces, wheels and smoke signals - and they inhibit others.
We create the social tools we want. And they, to some extent, create us - or at least confirm our social interactions. If we are lonely, it is as a side-effect of various social interaction choices that have also led to the appearance of online social networks in the forms they exist.
Loneliness is not born of social networks, any more than people are born from apes, or English is descended from German. They share common ancestors. The social tools will change (slowly, grudgingly) as society changes, and social change is neither fast nor easy. Pretending otherwise is just headline-grabbing.
# Alex Steer (01/05/2012)