Social Media is No Longer Social

Once upon a time the emphasis of social media was placed squarely on being ‘social.’ Making friends, hanging out online, checking in with our besties, keeping up to date on our lives. And then, in an effort to generate more pageviews for advertising revenue the social media landscape shifted to emphasize ‘viewership.’

Rather than focusing on authentic interactions among friends, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram tapped into our dopamine addiction for ‘likes’ and turned what used to be our platform for keeping up with our friends into the timeline of high life window dressing and attention-grabbing events. Social media not only became less effective in fostering friendship, it inevitably made us compare our workaday lives to our friends on safari in Namibia.

The syndrome of “social comparison” actually has a new name: Facebook Depression. A new study in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology shows Facebook users feel more envious, worse about themselves, and increasingly depressed. In other words social media has become isolating, and anything but social. No wonder then that MarketWatch has reported on a “Digital Detox” trend as a growing number of users abandon Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Social media is in crisis and needs to be fixed soon. The human need to connect is deeply ingrained in our genetic code. Whether we share conversations face to face, or have authentic interactions online, we satisfy the basic human craving for strong friendships and meaningful bonds. Is the antidote less social media? GASP! Or better social media?

If online interactions are going to foster friendship, they’ll have to focus on mechanisms that build authentic human relationships. Writing in 1973, psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor called the building and deepening of friendships ‘social penetration theory.’ As relationships develop, Altman and Taylor noted, strangers become friends as they reciprocally reveal personal information in a process called self-disclosure.

Irwin Altman & Dalmas Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory

It’s a process that is equally valid in face-to-face interactions as it is online. As Jenna Clark writing in Behavior Scientist Magazine, says,

“Make sure you’re using social media for genuinely social purposes, with conscious thought about how it can improve your life and your relationships. As a result, she says, “you’ll be far more likely to enjoy your digital existence.”

Is it possible to build real relationships in a virtual world? According to Clark, “The kind of technology-mediated interactions that lead to positive outcomes are exactly those that are likely to build stronger relationships.”

On IMVU, friendships are blossoming through its 3D avatar-based social platform by facilitating friends to reciprocally reveal personal feelings and self-disclose in a safe and protected way. Each day millions of IMVU participants deploy their avatars into 3D environments to develop meaningful interactions in real time.

Victor Zaud, IMVU’s SVP of Marketing, says, “Our vision is to deepen the friendships and community you already have and give you the ability to connect with new friends.” On IMVU people dress up their avatar and then meet, socialize, dance, make new friends, send each other gifts, ask for and offer advice, go shopping for over 43 million items in IMVU’s online stores, and meet up with friends in one of over 10,000 3D rooms.

@Clarity uses IMVU to forge a deeper relationship with someone she’s pretty close to already. Her sister. Despite living in different parts of the country, they are tighter than ever. They use IMVU “typically every other day, to talk about real-life stuff, such as what’s up with her children.”

Joining IMVU, Clarity says, “Allows us to have a relationship as sisters. We can do the same thing in IMVU that we would do in the real world, like go shopping, chat, and listen to music.”

That’s precisely the user experience @DarkAngel5 has witnessed and helped support for more than a decade. DarkAngel5 has been on IMVU since 2005 when she was one of the first 30 members to join. Today, she says,

“I know thousands of people. I’m part of the unofficial greeter group. When a guest user comes in I ask them what they like, and what are they into. If you speak Portuguese, I can help find someone that’s a good fit. If you are into rescue dogs I can find a group that shares your interests. If we have some things in common, I add you as a friend.”
DarkAngel5 and friends in her Chat Room

It turns out the mechanisms that promote friendship are just as relevant for avatars (and their users) as they are in real life. Maybe more so. When it comes to making friends in IMVU, @Whims a user who joined IMVU in 2007 explains, the process of building closer friendships depends on how often friends can meet in IMVU. “Frequency builds familiarity,” she says. “You meet someone, you hit it off, you have a good time, so you want to meet and chat with them again.”

Whims and Hank, Married since 2011

Thanks to its avatars, making friends in IMVU offers a level of comfort that might not be there in-person.

“Avatars provide a wall of protection that allows you to be more yourself, she says. “You can be freer. There’s a level of comfort that might not be there in person.”

In other words, through the use of avatars, IMVU provides an opportunity for openness. And that, Whims believes, “is even better than real life.”

Our evolution has shaped us into social beings. As much as we need food and water, we need companionship. Recent studies reported in the Journal of International Psychogeriatrics note that up to 75% of Americans experience an “alarmingly high prevalence of loneliness and its association with worse health-related measures” which they say “underscore major challenges for society.” Mental health requires friendship. Social media, which once promised the ability to make friends despite the limitations of time and geography, needs to find ways to become more social, more welcoming, more human. Speaking through and connecting with online avatars will become an increasingly powerful medium for friendship.