This month’s Atlantic cover story is called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonelier?” and features an arresting image of a couple embracing in an electronic glow, while the man looks at his smartphone. It’s unquestionably a great cover, but it’s also a profoundly bad article. In it, Stephen Marche argues that “we have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.” He lays the blame, unsurprisingly, on Facebook. The only problem withwith Marche’s thesis is that it is wholly unsupported even by the studies he cherry-picks for his article.
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?
At one point Marche even cites a study that Facebook users express lower levels of social loneliness. He goes on to note that those same users express greater feelings of family loneliness without considering the possibility that it is the very social trends he seems to dismiss earlier in the article – the trend toward living alone deeper into adulthood, the rise of anomic suburbs and exurbs, and the labor market forces that lead young adults to move far away from their families — that account for higher levels of family loneliness. He cites research that concludes users who post interactively, with text, rather than “liking” statuses, express lower levels of loneliness. And then he writes, “…Burke’s research does not support the assertion that Facebook creates loneliness.” Someone get this guy into contact with the Atlantic‘s headline writers stat!
All of this self-contradiction would be troubling enough if Marche hadn’t decided to ignore studies that push back against his central thesis, like the Pew findings 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….” The same study, mind you, finds that our average number of close confidants has risen from 1.93 in 2008 to 2.16 in 2012. I found this data with precisely one targeted Google search. One wonders how or why Marche was unable to do the same. In fact if you look at the secular trends, the reversal of the decline in confidants has coincided precisely with the rise in Facebook users. Is this a newer version of the study Marche quotes? It’s hard to say because he doesn’t bother naming it.
Could it not be, contrary to Marche’s undisguised contempt for Facebook users, that human beings, in their infinite ingenuity, have figured out how to leverage the technology to maximize social gains? It would have been helpful had Marche taken twenty minutes to do a search on the academic research about Facebook, where he might have found studies like this one, by Ellison, Steinfeld and Camp, which argues that Facebook creates “a strong association between use of Facebook and the three types of social capital, with the strongest relationship being to bridging social capital.” Or perhaps he might have found this 2009 study, which finds “positive relationships between intensity of Facebook use and students’ life satisfaction, social trust, civic engagement, and political participation.” I could go on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The truth is that there is not one single piece of data in the article which strongly supports the lazy conclusions that Marche clearly already had in mind when he wrote this piece. And I say this with the certain knowledge that there are studies out there that might support his thesis – he just didn’t bother looking for them.
Marche at one point muses, “Perhaps it says something about me that I think Facebook is primarily a platform for lonely skulking.” It does, in fact, say something about him, and what it says is that Stephen Marche does not like Facebook, and feels lonely while he uses it, and that he built from this single experience with a single platform a specious and easily refuted argument about the overall effects of Facebook use. His lazy dismissal of the social benefits of Facebook mirrors closely the tendency of journalists and even academics to fall for anecdotal evidence that social media generate lazy activism and disconnected activists.
There is something lurking beneath all of this – a feeling that you get when reading Evgeny Morozov’s work on the Internet, or Malcolm Gladwell’s spectacularly ill-timed indictment of digital activism months before the Arab Spring: there seem to be a number of people who genuinely loathe social media. They think it is frivolous and narcissistic and shallow and pointless and most of all a massive distraction from all the important things we could be doing in the real world. This revulsion is reflected in their work, which always starts with the straw man of some digital utopian claiming that social media will sweep away dictatorships, poverty or loneliness, and then sets fire to the poor straw man with an avalanche of anecdotes, personal musings, and clever turns of phrase. What is particularly appalling about this line of work is not only how disconnected (irony alert!) it is from academic research on the subject, but how little these authors seem to think about or reflect upon the actual lived experiences of users of these technologies, whose purposes, triumphs and yes, setbacks, are an ongoing, unfolding rebuttal of this kind of mean-spirited and narrow-minded reductionism.