Loading…
0:00
7:18

Facebook Doesn’t Always Make You Lonely

Your social media experience depends on your personality

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the popular arguments against social media. It encourages fake interaction over real conversation. Over time, we stop talking to each other at dinner. We stop treating each other as humans. We compare ourselves to each other constantly. A date, for example, no longer involves courtship. Why flirt with someone when you can swipe on them?

Some of these arguments make sense. We’ve gotten a little lazy when it comes to socializing.

A few months ago, a former writing student messaged for advice about publishing, and I didn’t respond right away. A few hours later, she sent a new message: “Okay. I see how it is. I’m not important. Enjoy your fucking vacation.”

I wrote back offering to set up a meeting over email. Meanwhile, I suggested, we should probably stop interacting on social media. She apologized profusely, but the damage was done. When you drop an F-Bomb on someone, they never forget.

Since then, I’ve stopped using Facebook to keep up with my friends and colleagues. Disabled notifications. Deleted Messenger on my phone. My life has improved dramatically. But I still use Twitter, and I have no plans to kill the app. Why?

Personality Type Matters on Social Media

Psychologists have studied social media ever since the first tweet. Authors like Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle have criticized these platforms for draining our humanity. They’re partly right. They’ve done a helluva lot more research than me, so I can’t dispute them.

But the latest round of studies on social media does a better job accounting for personality type. Not everyone reacts to Instagram the same way. Sure, plenty of people do just what the critics describe — their social skills deflate, and they turn into wallflowers at parties.

Others don’t share that experience. It’s almost like we’re immune to some of these side effects. Newer psychological studies link online behavior to social traits. For example, psychologist Chia-chen Yang at the University of Memphis uses Festinger’s theory of social comparison orientation (SCO) to explain why some people feel lonely online.

The SCO approach characterizes people based on their tendency to compare themselves with others. You might rate yourself against those you think of as “better” than you, or worse. Or both. Instagram loves when we do this. We see someone post a beautiful selfie. We like it. And then we feel the need to post our own, even beautiful-er one.

Some traits make us much more vulnerable to Instagram’s downsides. Those most at risk feel high self-consciousness, high social orientation, and low self-esteem. In other words, if you care what people think about you, then you’ve got to use Instagram and Facebook with caution.

Then there are people like me: love children of autism and psychopathy. The opinions of others matter on the surface, but I’m blissfully unaffected on an emotional level. My brain treats it like information. Yeah, I have a harder time making friends. But I also don’t “need” approval the same way others do.

Some traits make us much more vulnerable to Instagram’s downsides. Those most at risk feel high self-consciousness, high social orientation, and low self-esteem.

Still, even I tire of Facebook. At first I enjoyed the very aspects critics hated. Social media allowed me to keep tabs on my friends, at a distance, without too many messy emotions. But now I’ve finally accepted that you can’t have very deep conversations on Facebook. Over the last few months, I’ve started calling and Skyping with friends again.

Motivation Also Matters

Internet fame is hilarious, entertaining, and pointless. Sort of. I’ve enjoyed mine so far, even the time when the Swifties came after me. It was like Mad Max: Fury Road, but in my phone.

A couple of years ago, I made a joke about Taylor Swift. The tweet went “viral,” I guess. Depending on your definition. It netted a couple of thousand likes, and of course the Swifties swarmed.

What’s a Swiftie, you ask?

They’re Taylor Swift devotees. A gang you don’t want to mess with. They’ll barbecue your corpse. Okay, not that. But they mass report anyone who says anything less than flattering about their idol.

What did I learn from my encounter with the Swifties? Your behavior online stems directly from the reasons you signed up. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget.

Critics of social media tend to assume we’re all here for the same reasons. Psychologists, however, give us a clearer picture of social media motivations. For example, users who post content more than they browse actually report a greater sense of loneliness. Even then, you can zoom in closer. Consider a college student who posts ten selfies a day, mixed with a dozen other statements about their emotions. That clearly signals loneliness.

Interaction makes a difference. Another student who primarily replies and chats with friends on their feed will feel less lonely. Finally, someone who posts all the time and chats with followers for an extrinsic reason (job, promotion, money) may not feel lonely at all.

Some join Twitter to follow celebrities. Others join to share their art. Build a readership. Engage in online activism. Or just to have fun. And all of them are here for the subtweets.

My reasons involve a mix of fun and extrinsic motivation. I like sharing stories, making people laugh, and posting selfies. Why? Because I can’t really act like that in real life. I’m a professor. I have to be boring. Academia doesn’t usually let us say or do whatever we want, even if we put a lot of thought into it. You must be careful, like with any job. My use of social media enables me to assume a different voice. A different me. And I like that me. It makes regular me easier to manage.

So, my use fluctuates. If I’m busy with work, I may not even log onto Twitter for a day or two. At other times, I’ll literally pull into a parking lot in order to send a funny tweet.

At the end of the day, I thank Twitter for helping me hone my prose. Because of Twitter, I can write in a snappier style when I need to. Trim a sentence down to its skeleton. Figure out when and how to break rules. It’s a great writing teacher.

Remember Why You Signed Up

Though many denounce users of social media as “addicted,” we’d all benefit from a less black-and-white approach. If you think you’re spending too much time on your phone, ask yourself why. Remember your core reasons for joining in the first place. Was your original goal to network? To keep up with family? Start a modeling career? Advance social justice and raise consciousness?

Because of Twitter, I can write in a snappier style when I need to. Trim a sentence down to its skeleton. Figure out when and how to break rules. It’s a great writing teacher.

Write that purpose down. Stick it on your wall so you don’t forget. Use other avenues to achieve your goals, in addition to social media. Keep networking online, but do it in person too. Keep posting your fashion selfies on Instagram, but also see about doing ads and commercials for local businesses.

Blog, but also query magazines and submit to journals.

Remember that social media provides an extension of what you do in other realms of life. Stay mindful of when you need a break. Or an actual conversation over an actual drink. Watch a sunset without taking a selfie with it. Don’t throw away your phone. But do enjoy a moment, every now and then, that you keep for yourself.