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Is Facebook to Be Blamed for Our Increasing Loneliness?

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Less than a month to go before its much-ballyhooed IPO, Facebook and its publicity-averse CEO has been the focus of much media scrutiny, ranging from the news that the company will purchase a portion of the patent portfolio Microsoft (MSFT) had bought from AOL (AOL) to its eyebrow-raising $1 billion acquisition of the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram.
It’s not just Facebook’s business wheeling and dealing that has been making the news. The company is also the subject of a soul-searching essay by Stephen Marche of The Atlantic on whether social media, including Facebook competitors like Google+ (GOOG) and Twitter, and its resultant increase in human interactivity has actually made us all feel lonelier than ever.
Marche first explains that the lives of Americans have never been more solitary and lonely, citing how the proportion of households with just one person nearly tripled from the less than 10% in 1950 to 27% in 2010, and how the number of adults feeling chronically lonely has increased significantly in the past decade.
Having established the pattern of increasing solitude in America, Marche then asks whether or not technology like Facebook exacerbates the problem. His conclusion, after looking at a slew of studies on the effect of social networks on human relationships, is that not only does Facebook creates superficial connections between humans, it fundamentally alters the way we define identity and concepts of self.

More than half its users -- and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user -- log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning, before we even pour a cup of coffee.
What Facebook has revealed about human nature -- and this is not a minor revelation -- is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

However, not everyone is convinced by Marche’s article. Over at the digital activism thinktank Meta-Activism Project, David Faris skewers Marche’s assertions and conclusions, saying that the latter indulges in some extreme cherry-picking of sources.

"Marche begins with the premise that we are getting lonelier -- that more adults express feelings of isolation, and that the number of American households containing only one person has grown enormously. What follows though, is a classic piece of post-hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning -- despite the fact that these secular trends have been in the data for two decades, he somehow manages to blame this outbreak of loneliness on social media, and focuses almost exclusively on Facebook. What is most galling about this premise is that some of the data he cites actually predate the existence of Facebook. One unnamed survey cites a decrease in the average size of our networks of personal confidants from 2.94 to 2.08 from 1985 to 2004. Quick question: When was Facebook invented?"

Faris cites other findings, including a Pew study, that show that “people who use it [Facebook] have more close friends, get more social support, and report being more politically engaged than those who don’t….” In other words, the social network is simply a tool that can be utilized in a myriad of ways, good or bad, depending on the individual.
The same Pew survey also found that heavy Facebook users, along with LinkedIn (LNKD) members, are much likelier to be politically active than non-users, contradicting the stereotype that social networks make us all slacktivists.
Another source who doesn’t agree with Marche’s assertion that Facebook makes us lonelier is licensed clinical psychologist, Robin Goodman, who spoke to MSNBC about the matter.
“The idea that [Facebook] can make you lonely doesn't work just like it can't make you feel popular. You bring to it who you are,” Goodman said in a TV interview.
“So there are actually good and bad things about social media and networking because it can be a way for somebody who's a little more shy or a little -- holds back a little to make connections, take those steps in a safe way. There are those other people that are already lonely that go on and say see, I’m not so popular. It’s like who is the most popular all over again.”
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