Is the Internet making us more lonely or less lonely? Yes.

We have seen a rash of essays and articles in the mainstream press recently that take a somewhat scare-mongering tone toward social networks and digital communication of various kinds: a piece in the Atlantic raised the question of whether Facebook is making us lonely, and a New York Times op-ed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle a few days ago argues that all the texting and social-media usage we’re engaging in is bad for us as a society, because it is preventing us from having “real” conversations and connecting with other human beings. But is this a real problem or just another example of how new technologies often get blamed for behavior that existed long before they were invented?

The crux of Turkle’s argument is that while text messaging, Facebook status updates and Twitter messages may make us feel as though we are connected to our friends and family in small ways, these “sips” of online connectivity don’t add up to much. It’s similar to the case she made in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, in which she talked about how social networks like Facebook are actually keeping us at a distance from one another, instead of helping to connect us. As she puts it in her NYT piece:

We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

But is that really true? There’s no question that a Facebook or Twitter chat can’t substitute for a face-to-face conversation with someone you care about. But is anyone really saying it should? It feels as though Turkle is proposing a false dichotomy, as though all the online communication we engage in somehow takes the place of “real-world” conversation. It’s like an updated version of the old image of young people sitting alone in their basements playing video games instead of going out to meet their friends in the “real” world. (Susannah Fox has a nice roundup of some reactions to Turkle’s piece.)

Those who are social online tend to be social offline

This argument has a number of flaws, however, including the fact that research shows people — particularly young Internet users — who are more social in their use of online networks and tools are also more social in the offline world. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written about this false dichotomy many times, including during an exchange with former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who echoed Turkle’s fear that online connections are a pale imitation of “real” human connections. Tufekci argues the online world and the so-called real world are almost indistinguishable now, and in many cases they tend to support each other rather than the opposite.

In his recent piece in the Atlantic, author Stephen Marche asked whether Facebook was making us more lonely instead of less, and ultimately he seemed to come down on the “more lonely” side of the equation, saying:

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

As poetic as that sounds, however, it simply doesn’t appear to be the case. Even the “expert on loneliness” who is cited by Marche in the Atlantic piece doesn’t agree we are becoming lonelier, and there’s no real evidence to suggest Facebook is helping or hurting in that regard. As with Turkle’s analysis, Marche seems convinced that social networking, text messaging or various other forms of online connection are replacing real communication between people, but at least in my experience — and also in the research of others such as Tufekci — that isn’t really what’s happening at all.

Online connections can just as easily spark offline connections

If anything, online connections tend to spark or promote real-world connections. I have met dozens and possibly even hundreds of people I wouldn’t know except for Twitter, had spontaneous coffee meetings thanks to Foursquare check-ins, and made countless other connections between the online and offline world. Does everyone do this? Of course not. I’m sure there are people who become more alone or more lonely as they use the Internet, just as there are lonely people who watch a lot of late-night television. But that doesn’t mean television causes loneliness.

As with any kind of activity, too much of it can be harmful to your health — but that goes for plenty of “real” world activities as well. Alexandra Samuel, the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, wrote in a response to Turkle that:

[W]orrying about kids who choose to live online is as misplaced as worrying about seniors who choose to live offline. It’s the result of looking at an emergent digital lifestyle through a generational prism, one that assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.

To me, this feels very much like the debate that was swirling around the Web in 2010 about whether the Internet was making us stupid — a theory advanced in part by author Nick Carr in his book The Shallows. As several people, including media theorist Clay Shirky and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out, the Internet doesn’t really do anything to us, apart from reinforcing habits or behavior patterns that we may already have. Can the Internet be used in ways that make us stupider, or at least make us appear that way? Sure it can. And so can virtually every other invention mankind has come up with since the wheel.

Pinker points out that virtually every technological development related to media, from newspapers and paperbacks to television and the Internet gets demonized at some point as people try to pin the blame for human nature on some external force. But in each case, it’s how we choose to use these new tools that matters, and that is something we all have in our power to change, for the better as well as for the worse.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jinterwas and Rufino