Why our social networks make us feel lonely

There are days when I look at my Facebook and other social network feeds with envy. Everyone in my social circles seems to live and lead perfect and interesting lives. I see stories of holidays, activities, friends getting together and having fun. I see complaints, whinges and bitching. I see anger and indignation, boasts and one-upmanship.

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But do I see the truth about my friends and their lives? Or do I see the minute speck of reality, carefully edited that they want me to see? Do I only see the carefully crafted parts of their lives that they want me to see – so I can think of them in a better light. So that they can show me the best part of who they really are. But are they the person I think they are?

Are our social networks changing us – encouraging us to portray a better version of the people we really are?

Our communities are weakening as we spend more and more time away from our friends and families. more and more of us think of ourselves as lonely. But how can this be? We have lots of friends on our social networking sites. We engage with them often. Our online social lives are demanding and require us to constantly contribute. At dinner, at home, as soon as we wake we add status updates to show our friends what a great time we are having. We feel connected to all our friends. And our friends stop us from feeling alone don’t they?

Our online networks grow. We collect connections on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook like badges of honour – as a mark of how successful we are. But do we have the deep friendship and relationships with these collections? Of course not. We are replacing intimacy with status updates and photo sharing.

But do the online messages of support really make us feel part of a closely knit community of friends?

I know some of my friends on social networks really well. I share gossip and experiences with some of my friends. My other friends, my weak ties still matter in my social network. But they are less ‘connected’ to me than my strong ties. I can not manage to have a close relationship with all of my social networking friends, Dunbar’s threshold number of 150 friends works for us online as well as offline.

As humans we tend to be really social creatures and congregate together in communities either offline or online. However, we are valued and rewarded for our individuality. At work we are measured for our personal achievements – not the achievements of the community, or work group as a whole. As a result of our achievements we get paid more salary, bonuses and achieve a higher grade of career. We feel better about ourselves and spend more money to validate our self worth.

Unfortunately, in pursuing our careers we often ignore the personal community that makes us feel connected. We spend more time on social networks, sharing thoughts and feelings online that we could be sharing with our close family friends and communities.

But social networks are making us lonely.

We become addicted to our devices, to our virtual relationships. We all suffer FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and we use our smartphones from the shower to the sack. We effectively manage our social lives through our devices. But are we truly fulfilled with our online social lives?

We are exchanging our community and our conversation with online connections. We seem to have many friends – but we are ultimately lonely. Our conversation now happens online instead of face to face.

We will always be heard by someone online. We can get the attention that we crave online. We can write humorous, witty posts, we can share interesting, thought provoking prose. We can be who we desire to be online. And we will never be alone. We have our connections and we have our conversations online.

And as our conversation happens online, we spend time making sure that our online status shows us in the best possible light. We promote our successes and edit out the unsuccessful parts of our lives. We delete swathes of our actual lives to show how fabulous our lives seem.

The problem is that conversation is unstructured, chaotic and unpredictable. It is unedited, it is ‘how it is’. Sherry Turkle in her brilliant Ted talk talks about conversation.

‘People say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right’.

And yet our online messages, are thoughtfully constructed and edited. This post has been corrected, and edited. It is not the original thoughts from my brain. It is a better version of the original truth I intended to share.

Our online messages are not chaotic. They are carefully contrived to have the biggest impact on our society. We display ourselves to our community in the best way that we can. We announce our successes (and our failures) in the way we want them to be seen by our connections. We cut out the bits we do not want you to see. We reserve the unedited truth for our face to face friends.

In the Innovation of Loneliness, Shimi Cohen says ‘I share therefore I am’. We use technology to define our thoughts and feelings – even as we are having them. We are faking experiences so that we have something to share with our connections.

As Turkle says,

“That feeling that no one is listening to me is very important in our relationships with technology. That’s why it’s so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed — so many automatic listeners. And the feeling that no one is listening to me make us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us”.

Don’t let a machine take the place of the human that cares about you. Ignore Timothy Leary’s phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Sometimes the best way to enjoy your true friends is to Drop in, Tune in, Turn off.

Eileen Brown is a social media strategist and consultant at Amastra, a columnist at ZDNet and author of Working The Crowd: Social Media Marketing for Business.  Connect with Eileen on Twitter and  or contact her to find out how she can elevate your brand and help your business become more social.