The longer people spend on Facebook, the greater the decline in “how people feel moment–to –moment and how satisfied they are with their lives,” according to a recent study conducted by the psychology department at University of Michigan. This finding was independent of factors such as the “size of people's Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, and motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem or depression.”

Technology and the web hold promise for connecting people of every type, all over the world. Friendships and relationships can spring out of the smallest encounters. Forums for any topic are accessible and are excellent outlets for those trapped by situation or circumstance. They give people the opportunity to reach out. Yet recent studies show that digital methods of communication pale in comparison with in-person interaction.

Loneliness vs. Being Alone

Sherry Turkle, a researcher on human-technology interactions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spoken extensively about the shortcomings of social networks. Her video entitled “The Innovation of Loneliness” summarized her reports and caught the attention of many. The video claims that social networks have changed “the deep meaning of intimacy and friendship with exchanging photos and chat conversations.” Cat pictures, posts and texts may seem akin to socializing, but fall short. Turkle refers to these interactions as “sips” of conversation but in this analogy, multiple sips don’t add up to a real gulp of dialogue. The validation we get from receiving texts and from our status being ‘liked’ is fleeting.

However, in her research over the past 15 years, Turkle has found more and more people, young and old alike, turning to social media and their phones for this validation and for a sense of connection. She has found three main reasons for this turn: “One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone.”

This last reason, according to Turkle, is changing our perception and acceptance of time alone. “The moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget [and] they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light,” said Turkle. “Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting.” However, psychologists, artists and thinkers have long agreed that spending time alone, when done in moderation, is not a problem as much as a necessity. Solitude is important for creativity as well as self development and studies have even indicated that spending time alone can increase one’s capacity for empathy.

But in a society where we can connect with increasing ease, being alone feels like something to be avoided. “We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone,” Turkle described. “But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely.”

Friends Forever

Part of our inability to find satisfaction with electronic socialization alone stems from the way social media abstracts ‘friends’. Physically, friendships are a constantly evolving social dynamic. People enter and leave our lives every day. But on Facebook, you can keep collecting friends up to the 5,000 limit and on other social media, the number can rise even further. Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that, although our capacity for virtual friends has grown, the upper limit of social connections a single human can manage has stayed the same.

Dunbar came across this number in the 1990s after studying primates and finding that they too could only maintain close contact with a limited group of individuals. The bigger the primate’s brain, the larger this number was. Dunbar applied this idea to humans and, based off brain size, he estimated that the number of connections we could maintain was 150. Since then, this number has been accepted by most sociologists as the Dunbar number and it remains pretty constant in human social situations such as optimal factory sizes, hunter-gatherer societies, Native American tribes, the Bushmen of South Africa, Amish communities and military companies around the world.

One example that does not match Dunbar’s number is the amount of Facebook friends that many people have. The average number of Facebook friends for the college age group is 510. However according to Dunbar, students are close with — at best —around 230 of these people. And that number is likely closer to the accepted average of 150. The definition of a friend has been stretched far by social media.

Although some may argue that social media has the potential to extend our ability to maintain contact with more people than before, this has not been the case according to Bruno Goncalves and Indiana University colleagues, who studied the links between people on Twitter. A 2012 study by analytics firm Beevolve found that the average number of followers per user was 208: individuals with more than that number tended to focus their attention on those followers they had the strongest connections with. On average, this was a select 100 to 200 people, once again falling in line with Dunbar’s predictions.

Our social media accounts may not reflect the amount of friends that we maintain but they do allow closer contact between distantly connected people. In an NPR article on Dunbar’s number, blogger for Wired magazine David Dobbs writes about one of the main flaws of the number in relation to modern society:  “We developed this 150 limit at a time when most of those people lived geographically close to you.” Nowadays, with people moving more often, going to colleges out of state or out of country and traveling elsewhere for employment, maintaining contact with your 150 can be difficult. Social networks could have a huge strength in retaining and organizing what might otherwise be weak social connections.

Adjusting Language

Part of the disconnect associated with social media and texting is due to the loss of aspects of communication that are heavily relied upon in face to face conversation. In person, we process inflection, body language and word choice. Posts, tweets, messages, emails and texts often rely on text alone. “I wouldn’t say that we connect more or less in individual cases, but by and large, we’re connecting differently,” said Amit Ray, associate professor and member of RIT's Lab for Social Computing.

This difference in communication is leading to changes in the way that people interact and form relationships with each other. To compensate for what is lost in typed conversation, we intentionally twist written language to convey some measure of inflection and subtext. Punctuation or its omission, onomatopoeias and intentional misspellings of words can give flat texts an impression of actual conversation. The development of internet catechisms like “I can’t even” or “what is air” can help users convey emotions more clearly as well. These phrases and modifications add a bit of personality and charm to text conversations and can help replace some of the lost context added by timing and body language. These modifications are a long ways away from replication of actual body language, but still add some subtext to the written word.

Judith Olson, professor of Information and Computer Sciences at UC Irvine, conducted a study to see how lost aspects of conversation affect our online communication and formation of trust.  She found that we now judge what a person says by their speed of response, rather than their tone. If we receive a quick response, we know the person we are talking to is also invested in the conversation.

In her TED Talk entitled “Texting That Saves Lives” CEO of Nancy Lublin stipulates that there is a correlation between speed and investment, contesting that, “Texting has a 100 percent open rate.” Even if there’s no response, texts are read.

Using this knowledge, started texting information about their social change campaigns to teens and some began texting back seeking help with home issues and bullying. Now, the number is being used as a crisis text hotline and as a spearhead for enacting change.

The Personal Touch

Social media, especially sites using actual names and not handles, have become means of self-promotion. Anyone can cherry-pick their best moments to show to the world and ignore the worst. In Tuckle’s TED talk, she explains that one of the main reasons people connect over social media and texting more readily than they enter into real time conversation is that they have more control over what they say and how they present themselves. “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,” Turkle explains.

The social media that we are presented with is selected and edited by the person posting the information and then it can be simplified even further by the way social networks design our platforms for interacting with these friends, strangers or acquaintances. News on Facebook, for instance, is highly customized by Facebook’s internal algorithm and can be further pruned by users’ preferences.

“Social media offers a customized individual experience, rather than a more social group experience, so people tend to gravitate toward people who think like they do,” said Laura Shackelford, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts, whose research looks at digital cultures and media.

But not all people in the outside world think along the same lines which can lead to trouble when the information presented through social media is shared with people outside personal networks,  such as employers and family.

 “Having to tether your thoughts, even in moments when you think it’s just you and someone else, is something dramatically new about electronic and digital communication,” said Ray.

And yet many users still feel ‘bound’ to use social media. Even with the flaws that can be found with the system, social media still manages to be one of the better organizational tools for social groups and conversations. Allowing around-the-clock access, near complete control over our interactions and a system to focus our attention, social media, texting and other methods of digital conversation have easily integrated into the modern lifestyle.

However, it is also important to acknowledge the weaknesses of these modes of communication. “[Technology] appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable,” said Turkle. “And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy.”

Although talking to each other digitally may be easier, cleaner and quicker, talking to each other in person is extremely important. After all, as Turkle said, “It's when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.”

Photos by Dan Wang