The loneliness of Facebook

You may scarcely know your Friends that post most often. They have cooked something new, have cute puppies, or have children with prizes. They might have taken a quiz that reveals what trivia they know or what experiences they have had that everyone else might have had. They may be somewhere they like. They may have read an interesting study.

If you stay on Facebook a lot, you will learn about important papers published, about who has died, or if they find that crashed plane’s black box. But what you will not get is any true connection with your Friends. What you will not get is any idea of what they are really up to, what is bothering them, what family tragedies they are enduring, or what true joy they are experiencing, though actual death will appear if it is of an elderly parent. You will not get any real enrichment of your connection with your friends, though when you see them next, you may feel artificially close. You might know what they had for dinner last night, how their last batch of home-brewed beer turned out, or where their vacation was.

In a way it reminds me of the difference between my junior and senior year in college, when I moved from a co-op of about 50 to an apartment with one true friend.  There were a lot of reasons I made the move, but one of the most important was that I despaired of shallow friendships. I did not have to commit to real friendships at the co-op because there was always someone in the living room. If I felt lonely, I could just go to the living room, and talk with whomever was there. It filled a void, but not in a good way, like a handful of potato chips when I really needed a warm bowl of pinto beans.

So I moved out and into an apartment with Sue. We shared a one bedroom, something students do not seem to do any more. Besides being close friends ourselves, we had other friends to our apartment, or met them, more often in bars or the library than coffee houses – did Ann Arbor even have them in the 1970s? I wish I could say that this was much better, that my life became full of enriched friendships. But I was lonely more often than I had been in the co-op. I did have stronger real friendships, relationships where we had to actually decide to see each other. But I also learned there is a human place for shallow friendships, for soft encounters to fill a temporary void.

Now I’m long past the crucible of college, I have a clear understanding of friendships, close and otherwise. I have a family and a lab group. Why do I even look at Facebook? Is it the village commons, but with no gossip, where everyone appears only as they want to and criticism is forbidden? Is it keeping me from nourishing friendships? Is it the fluff of rice crispies when I really want oatmeal? Are there enough photos family members post that I otherwise would not see to make up for stranger’s successes? Have we traded in occasional loneliness for something worse?

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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