Shouting Into the Void: Social Media Makes us Incredibly Lonely

shout lone header

I’m not one to buy into the mod­ern fad of call­ing every­thing an epi­dem­ic or a cri­sis. The me­dia uses alarmist words like these to grab our at­ten­tion and in­ject fear di­rect­ly into our eye­balls at every turn, but one pro­posed epi­dem­ic did catch my at­ten­tion: an epi­dem­ic of loneliness.

In October 2013 a sur­vey of adults showed that al­most 50% of all UK adults feel a de­gree of lone­li­ness; rang­ing from mild and some very acute. The thing most strik­ing about these num­bers is that it af­fects younger adults (18 – 24), as well as old­er adults who we more tra­di­tion­al­ly as­so­ciate with the lone­li­ness that comes with old age.

lone side 1I’m not here to grand­stand about the evils of so­cial me­dia, and I’m not go­ing to shake my walking-stick at the sky and lament the days when we took the wood­en tram to the talkies. I’m just here to share a feel­ing I think a lot of us have ex­pe­ri­enced as our lives turn in­creas­ing­ly busy and our so­cial time be­comes in­creas­ing­ly com­pressed. Social me­dia is a quick snack of in­ter­ac­tion, it is the rushed half of a ce­re­al bar of so­cial­iza­tion we eat run­ning out of the door. Like cook­ing a meal from scratch, or sit­ting down and read­ing a book,  face to face so­cial­iz­ing has in­creas­ing­ly be­come a ca­su­al­ty of our worka­holic so­ci­ety. The prob­lem is, like liv­ing on snacks, it has di­min­ish­ing re­turns and shouldn’t be done long term. We’re be­com­ing mal­nour­ished in terms of hu­man contact.

The more we in­ter­act, the high­er the noise lev­el and the less these in­ter­ac­tions mean to us. We don’t ex­pe­ri­ence things on a hu­man lev­el any­more, it be­comes a blur of noise. The hu­man mind fix­ates on neg­a­tive com­ments over pos­i­tive ones oft times, and plat­forms like Twitter and Facebook make that process even eas­i­er as we skim past a hun­dred neur­al or sup­port­ive posts and fo­cus on the one neg­a­tive one. We can also be­come quick­ly numb to val­i­da­tion on­line. As time goes on, some need more and more re­in­force­ment to keep feel­ing the same lev­el of support.

Social me­dia gives us a taste — a lit­tle 2D slice — of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and at its worst it can make us feel worse when we are iso­lat­ed. It re­minds us of the real ex­pe­ri­ence, but doesn’t de­liv­er the full thing. It’s a cock-tease for real, mean­ing­ful, and en­gag­ing in­ter­ac­tion and it leaves us want­i­ng more.

We only half-read posts on­line, we skim by, we lazi­ly browse, and in the shuf­fle it’s easy to miss cries for help. These plat­forms were not de­signed to hold a long-form con­ver­sa­tion, and in the case of Twitter it is ac­tive­ly de­signednot to — Twitter is lim­it­ed in depth by de­sign. This can lead those look­ing for deep­er con­ver­sa­tions or more con­cen­trat­ed at­ten­tion feel­ing re­ject­ed when that doesn’t come.

The de­sign of so­cial me­dia also feeds into feel­ings of in­ad­e­qua­cy as we view the san­i­tized pro­ject­ed lives of oth­ers from afar and at­tempt to com­pare that to our own im­per­fect sit­u­a­tions. Platforms like Facebook can make you feel like you are miss­ing out of so much, or that you are on the fringes of a so­cial group — pushed aside and less en­gaged than oth­ers. The thing is, an en­tire group can feel this about each oth­er re­gard­less of the re­al­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. On so­cial me­dia we can all be lone­ly together.

Lone insert 2

There is a real stig­ma at­tached to lone­li­ness on­line, and a lot of neg­a­tive in­ter­net stereo­types re­volve around peo­ple who lack so­cial con­tact or are in some way alone. Some would say for­ev­er alone.

As al­ways, a lit­tle bit of meme mag­ic gives us a more as­tute in­sight into our shared feel­ings of on­line lone­li­ness than we would like to ad­mit; the con­tort­ed, tear-stained gri­mace of “for­ev­er alone” with its hol­low smile and lumpy fea­tures ex­press a truth about our in­ner feel­ings. It’s easy to feel for­ev­er alone when fum­bling an on­line in­ter­ac­tion when there’s no one there to put an arm around you are tell you it’s not a big deal.

We end up chas­ing our own tails some­times, con­stant­ly wor­ry­ing about what our posts will say about us or how we are per­ceived. We are com­plic­it in pro­ject­ing the aura of some­one who isn’t feel­ing alone at all, we con­tin­ue the lie that every­one is do­ing okay lest we be the lone­ly los­er. This in turn pre­vents oth­ers know­ing they are not alone in… well… be­ing alone.

A favourite web cre­ator of mine Paul Neave cre­at­ed a site called Lonely Tweets, which sim­ply re­posts tweets with the word “lone­ly” in them. It’s kind of melan­cholic to just sit there and watch the lone­li­ness roll by. The site asks a poignant ques­tion“We are able to share our most in­ti­mate thoughts and feel­ings with the world at any giv­en mo­ment. But is any­one listening?”

I guess that’s my real fear, the real feel­ing be­hind the ti­tle of this loose se­ries; that all my words will fall on deaf ears and my at­tempts at per­sua­sion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will come to naught. That my work will be left un­read in some dusty cor­ner of the in­ter­net , for­got­ten… and alone. Shouting into the void is to let the words pour out of you and dis­ap­pear –un­heard — into the black­ness. It’s what a lot of us feel we are do­ing on­line and it’s what a lot of ac­tivists, in­ter­net sav­iours, and fol­low­er count­ing ego­ists don’t re­al­ize they’re are ac­tu­al­ly do­ing sometimes.

Replacement insert2

I’ve in­creas­ing­ly been favour­ing di­rect en­gage­ment plat­forms like Skype or Teamspeak over the cold, con­trolled, and very pub­lic en­vi­ron­ments of large so­cial net­works. We know from ex­pe­ri­ence the hu­man brain re­sponds in in­cred­i­bly com­plex ways to the sound of the hu­man voice, even more so to face to face in­ter­ac­tion. Social me­dia is good to sup­ple­ment our real life con­nect­ed­ness, but it can’t re­place it. It’s like eat­ing food with no nu­tri­tion­al val­ue; we feel full up on so­cial in­ter­ac­tion but we’re re­al­ly mal­nour­ished. You just can’t re­place real hu­man contact.

Touch is a strong re­pel­lent of lone­li­ness. I’m sure most of us feel much bet­ter af­ter I hug. Living alone for the past months af­ter be­ing in re­la­tion­ships, and look­ing af­ter par­ents, I know I’ve need­ed a hug and not had ac­cess to one. I have, at times, spent a por­tion of my day on Twitter or Facebook and then re­al­ized I was ac­tu­al­ly just feel­ing lonelier.

I re­cent­ly de­cid­ed to quit Twitter due to my own de­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship with the plat­form, but the mes­sages I re­ceived when I an­nounced I was do­ing so made me re­al­ize I wasn’t as alone or un­val­ued as I some­times felt. The same is true for many of you out there. If you get into a one to one con­ver­sa­tion with some­one with­out char­ac­ter lim­its or pub­lic virtue sig­nalling you will of­ten find you are val­ued and yes even loved.

Now if you’ll ex­cuse me I need to go out­side and see some peo­ple. I’m feel­ing kind of lone­ly on my own in here.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
Scroll to top