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Gadgets of Alienation: Facebook And Loneliness
November 13, 2012 | 11:00AM
Andrew Heaton lives in New York and makes pithy observations. Other insights can be found at www.MightyHeaton.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @MightyHeaton

Imagine organizing a really fun party for your friends. It would have a theme (The Big Lebowski, ugly sweaters, Nobody Wears Pants, etc.). Your sous chef roommate offers to make delictable snacks, and you rent a tiny robot to cart around trays full of liquor. Now imagine that, when inviting your friends, you specified “No texting or photos will be allowed at this party.”

Would people come?

Some, I think. That boozy robot would be a tough thing to turn down.

Now what if you just had a normal get together, with no gimmicks, but stipulated that nobody could flaunt it on the internet through Twitter, Facebook or text messages? I think about a quarter of the people you know would turn down the invitation, or would show up for ten minutes and then leave.

 
Why?
Partly because estrangement from the Internet makes people flip out. We all act as if we need our phone at arm’s length constantly, in case the president calls or we have to perform surgery. In reality, outwith a narrow bandwidth of jobs, you could check your phone once or twice a day and you wouldn’t miss out on much. Yet people live in mild, persistent terror of falling out of the loop.

Ask yourself this: how many parties or orgies do your friends really throw on the spur of the moment? Probably not as often as you check texts, e-mail and Facebook. Plus, if you constantly check social media, unless you have a message every time, you’re going to feel bad.

A lot of people only bother attending parties, visiting friends or possibly even marrying each other in order to brag about it online. These are the people who always post followups to social events on Facebook walls, as if they’re blithely unaware it’s public.

Texting and facebooking are a tool, like anything else. They’re very helpful in maintaining contact with people. Most of my friends that haven’t yet blown themselves up or gone to prison do not live in the same city as me, and social media is great at keeping us in contact.

But Facebook and the like has a lot in common with junk food and beer. If you’re thirsty, beer will actually dehydrate you. Likewise, constantly streaming social media into your ephemeral artery is a good way to feel alienated. Ultimately we are socially sated by face-to-face interaction.

The more time you spend on Facebook and texting, the more aware you are of everything you aren’t attending. I doubt that’s very healthy. Our brains aren’t wired rationally. If you are hanging out with friends, but are aware that there are two or three parties elsewhere, you are going to feel left out. Your brain doesn’t go, “Well, these are all mutually exclusive events and you chose a good option.” It registers your absence at everything else, and the more things you’re aware of, the stronger that sensation becomes. If you’re home alone, you feel more alone, because you know everyone else isn’t.

I feel sorry for high school students today. I managed to miss ubiquitous texting, and Facebook didn’t birth until my sophomore year of college. Think back to high school. Remember that horrendous pressure to fit in, to be included, to avoid exclusion? I didn’t really know what everybody else was up to besides my immediate friends during my formative years. If there had been a massive birthday party nobody invited me to, I would know, or if I hadn’t attended prom. Otherwise my social world was reasonably myopic, and happier for it. If three people I kind of knew decided to watch a movie on Friday night without me, how on earth would I know about it?

I try to avoid texting or taking phone calls when I’m spending time with people. If I’m hanging out with someone, they get my full attention. If I respond to every text, I’m implying that someone elsewhere is a higher priority.

 

 

 

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