Being Human, Social Media and the Science of Loneliness.

lonely monkey


200 million tweets are sent through 50 million Twitter accounts every day, 665 million people share 2.5B in updates, photos and likes on Facebook each month.

The number of people living alone and eating alone has nearly doubled in the last 40 years, rising from from 9 to 16 per cent.

To put these two together, one might wonder if we prefer each other with a screen in between.

What it means.

Possibly nothing.

If we are disintegrating collectively and filling a communal void with tweets, it’s not happening quickly. Visually, behaviors seem to be changing but perhaps it is only our tools that are evolving.

Social media is a new tool, just as the telephone was a new tool in 1876. Life changing, yes, but were we not already talking to each other before Alexandra Bell came along?

And before social media, we communicated in all its splendor.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, after seeing the telephone demonstrated apparently commented to Alexandra Bell; “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”

Everyone, it seems.

Less than 150 years later, the National Office of Statistics report that 94% of adults own a mobile phone. On the last count there were 82.7 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK alone — more phone subscriptions than pairs of ears.

Social media has unshackled us from the limits of sleep, work and study cliques. Connecting us beyond the immediate reach of an arm’s length, we are freed a little. We can communicate quickly, cheaply — for free even, and most importantly, whilst on the go.

For everyone of us, especially those of us with a disability, social media has been an enabler.

For those who have a disability, social media is an opportunity to showcase what they CAN do, rather than what they can’t. It gives them an opportunity to have others get to know them as ‘a person,’ rather than a person with a disability.” Rachel Strella, Owner of @RachelStrella

It’s hard to see a downside to our social needs being courted by social media.

Those quick to point out a slope would perhaps suggest that we are over reliant on social media, “phubbing” a friend at any given opportunity, becoming lonelier, more anxious, less willing to socialize, observing and “drinking people in” through screens, choosing information over experience.

The innovation of loneliness –

The Science of Loneliness

People have always been lonely.

The human capacity to feel alone starkly realized by poets and the chronically alone, long before the first scientific paper.

In the paper “Loneliness,” John T. Cacioppo & Louise C. Hawkley of the University of Chicago’s Center for Neuroscience trace the first scientific paper on loneliness just 50 years to the now classic psychoanalytic treatise by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann in 1969.

According to John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley, we are at our loneliest during our teens and in our 80s — travelling from one lonely port to another, free temporarily bar the misfortune of befalling “chronic” or “state” loneliness;

Chronic: the experience of loneliness particular to an introspective, depressive personality

State: the temporary loneliness experienced when moving to an unfamiliar new country, for example.


There will always be the sociable and the less so.

Genetic disposition, social exposure and our personal need to reach out to others will always differ. We are snowflakes in our social needs.

Social media seems to have nestled into civvy street, yet bars have not closed (many have – recession is a deal breaker for low footfall), clubs are yet to follow suite. As my colleague *John pointed out recently, there are some things for which old fashioned face-to-face contact can not be beat.

Arguably, rather than our networks consisting of 500 people that we could not exchange a furtive glance with, they are perhaps instead built up around a nucleus of people we would be with regardless of a wireless connection.

We have them not just in our minds but in our pockets too. We can connect during our lonely commute, quicken the reality of a slow day or simply say hello just because we can. We have our fill of information, follow our interests and connect with those we might not normally sojourn with, and enjoy that too.

Cavemen gravitated around a quota of 150 meaningful social connections. Despite the passing of thousands of years, our limit for meaningful social connection still sits tight at 150.

In an article in Bloomberg Business Week, writer Drake Bennet explains how Robert Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist, studied the capacity for families to sustain meaningful relationships before the net revolution, with no networks to analyse.

Dunbar counted the number of Christmas cards sent by families to quantify the number of meaningful relationships in a household. Card sending proved a solid method of identifying evidence of a meaningful relationship – you need an address before you even think about it and the enthusiasm to keep the relationship going to bother with the lick, stamp and post. 153 was the average number of cards sent by a household to friends, family and colleagues.

Until our brains double in size, 150 social connections will be the maximum number of relationships that we can maintain. Anthropologists note that any group formed and spilling over this number causes groups to sub divide to form new groups until the death knell of 150 forces the group to divide again.

Businesses, communities and tribes all follow this rule of thumb.
Path, an online business offering ‘one-to-one’ or ‘one-to-many’ private messaging and sharing, based their maximum number of file sharers on the ‘Durbar’ number of 150, effectively moulding their businesss to the human limit –

What Dunbar’s research represents is that no matter how the march of technology goes on, fundamentally we’re all human, and being human has limits,” Dave Morin, Path co-founder told Business Week.

We might have more than 150 in our networks but the surplus is just padding with potential – fluff for following curiosity, intrigue and future possibilities. Surrounding the core of family and friends and useful, curious and potent in the possibility to turn into future friends, lovers, employers or clients.

Loneliness and inclusion fitness

Survival, in the fullest sense of the word; surviving to have offspring who survived to have offspring, depended on social bonds.

And in many ways, it still does.

Many offspring normally need little or no parenting to survive and reproduce. Humans, however, are born to the longest period of dependency of all species, essentially making us the biggest babies of them all.

To survive and evolve, simple reproductive ability is not enough. A social skill or two is needed to render you a part of a group, ensure your family are protected in your absence, provide provision when you are unable to yourself and thereby enhance your “inclusive fitness” –

Moreover, social connections and the behaviors they engender (e.g., cooperation, altruism, alliances) enhance the survival and reproduction of those involved, increasing inclusive fitness”
John T. Cacioppo & Louise C. Hawkley

Loneliness, and its avoidance, is a useful evolutionary tool. To be lonely, one might be spurred into action to “not be lonely.” In doing so, social bonds might be repaired thus increasing your inclusive fitness and incidentally helping to secure the survival of genes in the process.

The dark side

Evolutionary dud – socializing that doesn’t end in meeting and reproducing might be seen as an evolutionary waster.

Social mobility – there is little going on. Despite the technology, the social structures of class still prove to be a hard nut to crack.

Burned out – people are “forever switched on” which has proved in a study by the University of Florida to led to increased anxiety in younger people, and those who suffer anxiety.

Feel good factor – there is little, for young adults especially. A study into how young people felt after time spent on Facebook show that despite it being “an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect,” it also points to a subsequent nose dive in wellbeing –

“Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive “offline” social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.”
Dr Ethan Cross, University of Michigan.

Intimacy is awkward and awkwardness is to be avoided.

Sherry Turkle points to a leaning on technology at a cost to intimacy and authentic connection in “Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other,”

We are however still the ones behind the screens.

The complaint is perhaps not with technology, but with the larger disappointment of finding that, despite the networks, social media and the myriad of ways to connect, we are still at the core, somewhat lonely –

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people — not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.” Thomas Woolfe


Uni of Michigan – Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well Being in Young Adults

Twitter blog figures:

The Rise of the Lonely Single:

Imagining the Internet

Business Week article: The Dunbar number

An Existential View of Loneliness

Image credit: thanks to Adrian van Leen of RGB Free Stock (taluda)