I just reading finished the cover story of the May Atlantic Monthly, which asks the question “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Facebook, here, is a stand-in for the hyper connectivity enabled by the gamut of communication technologies available today. And the answer given by the novelist/journalist Stephen Marche, unsurprisingly and as suggested by the illustration of a man gazing into his glowing cell phone even as he is embraced by a naked and clearly affection-seeking woman, is yes. Or at the very least, it’s not making us any less lonely.
What initially caught my attention in the piece (besides the realization that I’d be able to use The Social Network when I teach the history of technology) is that it hinges on a variation of a “users matter” argument. According to Marche, it’s not inherent in Facebook, or other online social networking technology, to be isolating. It’s just that many people use Facebook in ways that enhance feelings of loneliness rather than feelings of sociability. Instead of using Facebook to arrange meaningful, face-to-face interactions, we’re more likely to click “like” to show our approval of a friend’s most recent photo or status update and be done.
“The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved. When the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened its A&P stores, giving Americans self-service access to groceries, customers stopped having relationship with their grocers. When the telephone arrived, people stopped knocking on their neighbors doors. Social media brings this process to a much wider set of relationships.”
Of course, these aren’t very good examples to choose, not least because user-centered histories of cars and telephones have shown the ways in which these did increase social connectivity (as Klinenberg also points out on Slate). In addition, Marche’s argument seems to assume that there’s an innate human tendency adopt technologies in socially counterproductive ways — a sweeping generalization of human nature that undermines the very flexibility that the “users matter” idea first introduces to his narrative.
I’m curious to know what others think of the article, and, in a nod to Marche, I’ll add that if we can make that happen over a beer, all the better.