A man on his smartphone

Above: A man in a leather-jacket checks his smartphone. Credit: James Whitaker/Getty Images.

Facebook Lonely

Facebook is a social media website where users share old and new family photo snapshots (as well as videos). Thirty years ago, such snaps would have existed as postcard-size prints stored in an album, or a shoebox, to be shown only to one's inner-circle of friends, if even that. Under the era of the rise-to-prominence of Facebook it has become typical for at least 1 billion users to share the same such photos far more widely. The website is generally perceived as a way of keeping in touch with non-immediate friends and family.

A new Facebook spot describes the website's raison d'ĂȘtre (justifying the existence of the thing). At the end of the spot a sincere-sounding male voice-over reminds the viewer of the company mission: "when this place does what it was built for then we all get a little closer." But, mid-way through the same spot, again considering the site's benefit to society (perhaps in a mood of brutal frankness after the recent loss-of-trust issues) the basic purpose of the technology is this time defined in terms of a negative, and telescopes down to a single utility: an anti-isolation device, an anti-loneliness machine: "we came here for the friends .. And just like that we felt a little less alone."

The voice-over script is educational in that it offers an insight into the basic dynamic of social media participation: does it eradicate loneliness or actually provoke it? Critical theorists such as Paul Virilio have long argued that such websites create a fear-of-missing-out that is corrosive and detrimental to human well-being. And this point-of-view has been vindicated by recent medical research which confirms that many social media users report feeling more lonely as their use of the site increases--the more they use it the more isolated they feel.

It's no wonder really that Facebook's basic proposition included the word "alone" when it came to preparing a TV advertising spot: here is a website that either stimulates or abolishes unwelcome feelings of solitude depending on who you are listening to. The psychologists at Facebook have seen the research and they know very well all about the ambivalence of the findings. Unfortunately though, "use this website and you will end up feeling feel sad, unloved, and forsaken," is not going to work as an advertising proposition.

(29 June 2018)