The Innovation of Loneliness

The title alone is interesting. When we think of innovation, we tend to think of progress – progress in science, medicine and technology. It’s a word with positive connotations. But loneliness? It’s a word hardly associated with anything positive. And how can loneliness innovate?

The video provides an interesting sociological analysis of social media, and attempts to answer a rather troubling question: What is the connection between social media and being lonely?

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic because it’s something I have some strong opinions about, and I guess when I came across this video last week (well after its viral phase in 2013), I felt sufficiently inspired to write a post on it.

Social media has become such a big part of our lives, and the strange thing for many 20-somethings is that we can lucidly remember a time without social media. A time where we didn’t need to make life announcements on Facebook, mundane comments and rants on Twitter, and pictures of our lunch on Instagram.

Social (Me?)dia 

So let me go into my own experiences with social media. For me, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram form the big 3 of social media.

Facebook is something I use daily, but compared to the other two, I am more of a passive user. I don’t think I’ve posted a Facebook status for probably two years, and I generally scroll down my News Feed to find out what everyone is up to. I rarely post anything on my friends’ walls, and I don’t upload any photos onto Facebook. I do wish my friends ‘Happy Birthday’, and I use Facebook Messaging a fair bit, though mainly because some friends don’t want to pick up their phone to text me. Jokes. It’s pretty good for sharing links and files. The MSN of 2014.

On the other hand, Twitter is pretty much where a lot of my verbal diarrhoea goes. And for me, that’s always been a key attraction. I remember explaining to a few friends what Twitter was back in 2010(?): ‘It’s a place for you to write Facebook statuses but without the ‘popularity’ factor –  you can be perfectly content not being retweeted/liked/replied’. I also use it to read articles on current affairs/news/opinion.

As for Instagram, it’s something I do check quite frequently. I post regularly (but not really frequently) pictures of food, coffee, scenery and life experiences/events that make the cut. Everything about Instagram is filtered. And not just our addiction to filters that promise to bring out our inner photographer. It’s a ‘filtered’ representation of our life; a facade that we present to our friends (and the world). And I openly admit this – Instagram can be a source of self-validation. I post to share snippets of my life and also, to get likes. (Does anyone else admit this?) It feels good! But to ‘earn’ (and I use this word very loosely) these likes, I am acutely aware that I often frame and package my experiences in a certain aesthetic, one that others (first and foremost) as well as myself find appealing. What’s worse, is that sometimes you can’t help but think that some experiences may be pursued for the sake of sharing. Will I enjoy my lunch at a cafe which has been the talk-of-the-month any less if I don’t post a picture of my lunch and the shabby chic (and sometimes, just shabby – admit it) decor? Probably not. But there’s something admittedly exciting about sharing that with your friends, letting everyone know that you are hip enough (and yes, by using that word, I’ve proven that I’m anything but that) to eat a cafe where you can’t actually pronounce the dish you are ordering (no, it’s not quinoa – I can pronounce that) and you’re not even sure whether the unknown ingredient is a vegetable, type of French cheese, or a spice. #thestruggleisreal

The video 

Well, let’s get back to the video. One of the key points raised is that social media has resulted in us sacrificing real conversation for an instant connection, and choosing quantity over quality when it comes to relationships with others. And this is in part due to the nature of social media – it facilitates instant ‘connections’ after two clicks, rather than meaningful relationships that are built over time. Another point is that social media provides a platform for us to present the best version of ourselves. We can labour over the correct working of a text or email (something we can’t do quite as well in real-time face-to-face conversation). We can deliberate over which photo is the most flattering and perhaps, the least self-conceited (you know, the selfie that doesn’t look like a selfie). And most importantly, social media promises us that we’ll never be alone. We’re prompted to share what’s on our mind and to upload our photos for our friends to see. We’re given a voice. Our philosophy becomes: “I share, therefore I am.” 

My thoughts 

I do agree with the general premise of the video. We are forever building our profiles, choosing on the most desirable facade of ourselves to present to others. And yes, we as human beings do have an innate need to be ‘heard’. Social media certainly recognises this vulnerability. Personally, I do have a tendency to overshare on Twitter. And sometimes I do want my Instagram feed to follow a certain aesthetic. But does social media make us somewhat less ‘real’? I disagree. We don’t live exclusively online. We may already have slightly different ‘personas’, depending on whether we are out with friends, or at work. Perhaps our online profile is simply another ‘persona’. At the end of the day, to the people who do matter to us, we are who we are. I don’t think social media is capable of changing that.

And as for the other question on loneliness, I’m not sure using social media will fast track us to Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself’. Social media definitely has its value in enabling us to keep in touch and stay connected with friends and family in real life. It doesn’t prevent us from forming meaningful relationships with others. The onus will always be on us, not social media, to take the initiative to build a relationship with another.

I do have some pet peeves about social media though. Sometimes, instead of simply asking someone how they are, we make reference to what they’ve shared online. Oh, I read your tweet the other day! I saw your Instagram post! Your snapchat last night was hilarious! Social media becomes a crucial dialogue filler. We expect others to be up-to-date with the details we share online.

Another one is when we start to compare ourselves to other people. We claim that we are ‘depressed’ when we see friends (in the Facebook definition of the word) checking in at airports around the world and Instagram posts of holidays in Europe. But are we really ‘depressed’? I think it’s envy. But we’re unwilling to admit it. The problem is that we don’t realise, or are unwilling to acknowledge that each and every one of us strives to present our lives in the best way possible online. That idyllic picture in Santorini may only a snapshot of their life. It’s by no means, a true portrayal of who and what they are. It’s a picture. That may have only become a thousand word fairytale through your ever-so jealousy-driven and far-too-vivid imagination.

I think we just need to take everything we see on social media with a grain of salt. We often choose to present the best version of ourselves online. Well, so do others. 🙂


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