First day as visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, after a series of inspiring talks and equally inspiring and engaging students, I got the right framing question from Prof Jenna Burrell to write about the impact of social media on relationships. She shared an Atlantic piece 'is Facebook making us lonely' and Claude Fischer's rebuttal 'the loneliness scare', and asked us to draw from the evidence and arguments of these articles, and assess whether 'Facebook is making us lonely?'
Here is my take.... Facebook is only a tool and as such cannot make us lonely. I feel it is like saying that a knife can turn us into a serial killer.
This said, if you are a chronically lonely person, probably Facebook may keep you lonely. If however, you feel isolated, Facebook may help you reconnect with your loved ones. By the same token if you are a narcissist, probably Facebook will contribute to make you a bit more of a narcissist. In other words, it definitely plays a role in accentuating our traits.
I am firm believer of Robin Dunbar’s theory. Dunbar says that there is a direct correlation between the size of our social group and the size of our brain and he sets that number to 150 - better known as Dunbar number.
Basically what he says is that we can only have a meaningful and trusted relationship with 150 people and these are people with whom we have a personal history.
What does this mean to our “friends” on Facebook.... Well, no matter how many “friends” we have, we can only have a meaningful interaction only with our trusted “friends” which cannot be more than 150. And these are people who we know, who we’ve met face-to-face and have some sort of history with. And in this case Facebook can enhance and contribute to making these relationships stronger, especially if there is a physical distance between us and our “friends”.
Facebook itself allows the user to segregate “friends and family” into different categories, thus allowing us to maintain the meaningful relationship with the magic Dunbar number!
Fischer’s observation that “e-communication does not replace in person contact” is very true, however, once that personal contact is made, e-communication can definitely help maintain the relationship.
I guess what Facebook has done is to contribute to an increased voyeurism. This said, we must bear in mind that as a tool it is used differently by different people.
For example, for a vast majority of people living in developing countries not only it is a way of keeping in touch with their loved ones who have migrated abroad, but also a source of information and one that provides them with a bird’s eye view to the world. Similarly, for the diaspora, it is a great source of information and content about their home country and a way to keep in touch with their local culture.
So to conclude, if we do not feel lonely, Facebook does not make us lonely and if we do feel lonely, Facebook can help maintain status quo, or can help us reconnect with one the 150 people in our social group, thus contribute to make us less lonely!
Yes, I am an optimist and a technology determinist!