Loneliness In Tech: The Isolating Irony Of Social Media

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series series on how loneliness impacts all aspects of the startup world, from founders to the technology that creates and combats the condition. Read Part 1, on how loneliness impacts founders, here

The poet Rupi Kaur once wrote: “The irony about loneliness is we all feel it at the same time.”

I imagine that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and other leaders of social media would like to think of their platforms as a refuge for this human condition. After all, windows into each other’s lives have never been easier to look through. Facebook has 2.4 billion users who connect and share. Instagram, another Facebook-owned property, has 1 billion monthly users.

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Despite those massive user numbers, data tells us we’re the loneliest we’ve ever been. In fact, the more online you are, the more likely it is that you actually feel alone.

Some of the blame for loneliness is the omni-present like button—an app feature some confuse for actual affirmation. For others, digital socializing is a contradiction in itself.

“Social media has failed in its promise of being social,” said Ali Shah, the founder of Tapebook App, a conversation platform he said is built “to help people to rediscover and reconnect over conversations.”

“The true promise of social media,” he said, “can only be realized through real conversations.”

Shah’s app helps people chat through spoken conversations, which he says are more intimate than the ones that could be had through keyboards or devices.

“The social apps of the world today have external validation and FOMO as their primary incentives,” said Esther Crawford, the CEO of Squad, an app which lets individuals screenshare and video chat.

The game, she said, ends up being how we can all get the most likes, comments, and follows.

“It’s exhausting and depressing to constantly compare everyone else’s filtered lives to your own real life,” she said.

Yet the largest social platforms in the world are slowing catching on to the inherent addictiveness of the apps they build.

A Filtered Lens

Instagram is rolling out a version of its app that removes the total number of likes on photos and video views. It is being tested in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand, according to Devi Narasimhan, a spokesperson for Instagram.

“We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get. We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition–we hope to learn whether this change can help people focus less on likes and more on telling their story,” she added. The test began in Canada in May.

Of course, some users have found social media, as is, to be useful. Sahil Lavingia, the CEO of Gumroad, spends about 19 hours and 44 minutes a week on Twitter, according to his Screen Time app. 1

“The value of Twitter, for me, is the stuff that is on no one’s feed,” he said. “It’s the DMs that have been really valuable to me. I try to use it as a place where I can have conversations with people and be genuine and share my thoughts.”

Through DMs turned into Zooms and phone calls, Twitter has given him friends in tech in Utah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

As for quality of conversation, money talk isn’t deep enough, Lavingia said. Talking about how hard it is to paint with the color green, however, is.

But having that deeper conversation requires a culture shift. It means relying on social media not for the affirmation but for the potential conversation. And it’s possible that culture shift, coupled with less addictive features, is the solution to loneliness induced by social media.

Featured image by Dom Guzman.

  1. I spend about 21 hours a week just on social networking applications. That’s 21 hours that could be spent at the gym, or perhaps making connections in real life. For a view of how other people spend their time on screen, check out this Twitter thread.

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