Is social media making us lonely? What would Proust say?

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Our PR Diploma graduate Bob Watling has been looking at infographics as part of his final project and we have been swapping examples for the past few weeks.  When he came across this one, I suggested it was about time he did a blog for us on it.  Is social media making us lonely? Are you more inclined to ponder the question because of the way it is presented – ie as an infographic? Here’s what Bob had to say….

There’s been a healthy debate for some time about the effects of social media networks on our social relationships. Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together is one of the latest meditations on this. Shimi Cohen’s excellent video infographic ‘The Innovation of Loneliness’ explores some of these ideas in a compelling way – take a look and see what you think:

Firstly Cohen’s video is a great example of the power of infographics to frame a debate in an engaging and shareable way – no wonder it’s a Vimeo staff pick! It’s also a good example of how a short video can help move people from being a latent audience to an aware audience on an issue they may not have thought about before.

But what about Cohen’s key point that there’s a connection between social media and being lonely? Is social media ‘making’ us lonely?

Well you may recognise some of the online behaviours that Cohen highlights: constantly chasing more social network members; ‘making up’ experiences so you can share them online; promoting yourself at the expense of cultivating real connections with people. But is this unique to social media? Is it unhealthy for us? Is digital technology making it worse?

Relationships are complex things, pursued for various reasons. If you’ve ever tried to read Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time  you can probably recognise most of the behaviours Cohen worries about, but from a pre-digital age. Proust’s novel is full of superficial friendships, social labyrinths, the power of gossip, the importance of self-promotion and the joy and pain of joining a social circle only to be excluded from it later.

The power of Proust’s novel however is how it shows us that we all do this, normally from the best intentions, as part of the social experience we all pursue. The social world – as Proust’s hero discovers – is actually a social game, and playing it is addictive and rewarding.

When I look at my social networks I see people I know well and acquaintances I know slightly. But there’s also people I only know online, brands and companies I’m interested in and celebrities whose comments I enjoy. Like Proust’s characters I play (and I suspect you do too) the same social games he played a hundred years ago: sharing gossip (digital content), chasing attention (“RT me please!”), and self-promotion to gain connections (building the ‘personal brand’). The intermittent rewards of online attention and praise make this behaviour addictive.

But that’s the nature of all social games, in the real world or the digital. The behaviours that Cohen’s video highlights are actually good strategies for game players to increase the likelihood of gaining these intermittent rewards. You can argue that chasing these rewards is ‘bad’ for us, but who doesn’t like a retweet? Who doesn’t try to shape their social media behaviour to occasionally get one? It doesn’t make us bad people, or lonely people chasing validation, unless you think that social game-playing is itself a bad thing. Even if you do I doubt these behaviours would vanish if someone switched off the internet. And whilst it’s tempting to say social media is accelerating the speed of these behaviours, think about how quickly you pursue these strategies yourself when you’re in the pub with friends on an evening. You’re pretty quick at game playing, even without Facebook.

Cohen is right that taken to extremes such game-playing behaviour is unhealthy. Proust makes the same point when he shows us the unpleasant Madame Verdurin and her ‘little clan’ of cold-hearted social game-players who delight in cultivating and then excluding people. But technology doesn’t make this unpleasant behaviour happen, we do by taking these game too seriously. There’s a debate to be had around this, and social platform providers need to be active in having this debate. If Twitter or Facebook become platforms dominated by trolls and spammers then people will simply move away to other platforms.

Brands and companies that are active online also need to take part in this debate, as it’s their reputations that are at stake if they become associated with the unpleasant (and thankfully rare) occurrences of anti-social game playing. PR and CSR practitioners need to be alive to this issue if they represent active digital brands or companies, but recognise that at heart it’s an issue of human behaviour. We can educate people, promote the good and police the bad online – all sound PR practices.

If your company is thinking about these issues than as a PR practitioner you really need to be in the room. And if someone says “It’s all the fault of Mark Zuckerberg!” hit them with a little Proust!