It might. According to Moira Burke, interviewed by Stephen Marche for The Atlantic, her studies show that people who compose comments on their “friends'” walls are less lonely than people who just “like” a post or who just read their friends’ status. Stephen speculates that’s because everybody is glossing up their lives, re-touching them like a magazine photo, to seem more fulfilled, successful and glamorous. Reading about all these glam friends makes him feel like a slouch.
John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, takes loneliness seriously:
When we drew blood from our older adults and analyzed their white cells,” he writes, “we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed.” Loneliness affects not only the brain, then, but the basic process of DNA transcription. When you are lonely, your whole body is lonely.
His take on FB is that it neither promotes nor detracts from loneliness–it’s a tool and the result is all in the use of the tool. However, his research shows that only f2f interactions affect loneliness. The result is that time on FB, if it reduces time in 3D, makes people lonelier.
I was thinking about this myself today. I was on FB, scrolling through my 400+ “friends” to find those I felt comfortable inviting to my reading at the local library tomorrow. I was looking for people whom I know personally, someone I’ve stood and chatted with when we’ve run into each other.
Those kinds of interactions spill over into my conversation with A. And according to research, it’s the number of confidantes we have that relieve feelings of loneliness. Marriages where the spouses don’t confide in each other are just as lonely or lonelier than being single.
Facebook originally started as a way for people to find acquaintances or former friends. And it’s still useful that way. After looking through my list of friends, I contacted someone I know by commenting on her wall. She responded immediately and warmly, and that brightened my day. (And she offered to share real maple syrup her friends had tapped! That was even more of a brightener!)
Interestingly, I only found out afterward, reading Marche’s Atlantic article, that Moira Burke found that posting comments on a friend’s wall increased people’s sense of connection more than simply reading friends’ status updates or even direct messaging.
Is FB a nuisance? A time-waster? A saccharin substitute for connection? Does it stop people from seeking what they really need?
I don’t know. But promoting a book brings up questions about genuine connection, about authenticity and posturing, however sincere an author is. So I think I’ll just create a new FB category, “People I actually know.” At bottom, we are still apes, and nothing eases loneliness like removing nits from each other’s fur. Or an offer of maple syrup tapped by a friend’s friend.
(For Stephen Marche writing about FB, click here.)