Is Facebook making us lonely? This question was raised in an article written by Stephen Marche in the May 2012 edition of The Atlantic. The research examined the typical population and social norms worldwide. For individuals with Autism, social norms are perceived very differently, and it is quite astonishing how Facebook enhanced their feelings of social connectedness with others, in contrast with the rest of the world.
“We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response”. Yes indeed, but is that necessarily a bad thing? How does it compare to a person having a conversation where they vent to listener, but then nothing validating is reciprocated. Personally, as an Aspie, I have struggled with social interactions all my life. I find it tiring to play the social game, to appear ‘normal’. So I retreat and regroup, until the next interaction is expected of me. In-person communication is fast paced and unpredictable; it becomes a superhuman challenge for me to participate on the fly, in a task that I am not wired to naturally accomplish. Social chit-chat is unscripted, and I fail to spontaneously participate in that. The internet has changed this completely for me, and other Aspies.
When the story of Carly Fleischmann was aired on 60 minutes, the world was shocked to learn that autistic individuals have normal thoughts and even humor in their minds, although they appear quite impaired from the outside. Internet technology has opened the doors to individuals with autism, specifically pertaining to communication. How odd that it helps those who are impaired in that area, while it impairs those who are naturally wired to communicate without technology. Perhaps texting and internet chatting is like a crutch for those who walk perfectly fine. Suddenly, they have to navigate walking with two extra sticks, and they become very clumsy and significantly slowed by them. Analogically, the ASD folks walk in perfect sync with the newfound crutches.
In our uber-connected world, who really communicates? As the research of Eric Klinenberg suggests, “it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness”. Apparently, Facebook strips the quality of face-to-face communications to barebones, enough to categorize it into an interaction with the least quality. For many Aspies though, access to creative language skills gives them a wide range of expressive abilities using words and punctuation only. With body language and facial expressions safely eliminated, the word becomes their oyster. While person-to-person communication often turns sour, the listener may get offended by an Aspie’s blunt approach to communication. With the internet, language can be tweaked and refined, until it is the least offensive, and most appropriate. For neurotypicals, this eliminates the body language they so desperately rely on for understanding motives, that they become completely debilitated when trying to communicate using the internet. A psychologist who met me a while back exclaimed, “I’m having trouble assessing your emotional state”. I wasn’t having any trouble at all, but she was. This was because her years of training taught her to evaluate a person’s body language and facial expression. Apparently, I use my words instead. For a neurotypical, that is like fumbling in the dark. I think that the great Internet Paradox is where NT’s fail in communicating because they are denied access to the very thing they need most, while Aspies blossom in an unprecedented manner.
The uncharted territory of textual communication has produced a genre of internet speak. LOL has become the ultimate validation for a funny blurb. To liberate Aspies who struggle with sarcasm, one creative fellow invented the sarcasm font, which looks like italics leaning in the opposite direction. So if you write “nice day today”, the sarcasm would visually scream out at you in that font. Until that becomes more mainstream, we can rely on brackets to encase our words with < / sarcasm > to signal its ending.
It is the folks with the best interpersonal skills that are failing most miserably on Facebook. The lack of grammar compounded by the appalling punctuation choices and screaming all-caps, quantitatively fail to feed the gaping holes in perceptual imagination. Without these signals, internet communication becomes least desirable, less of ‘quality’, and finally, the demise of the mental health. No wonder Facebook is plunging the nation over the cliffs of despair. Other than being the grammar Nazi of my Facebook friends, all I can say is, my heart goes out to them. You see? I have compassion. And I can express it very well. And you can feel it, without observing my eyebrows, or tilting your head sideways to dissect my emoticon.
If the research is indeed true, and that lonely people gravitate towards Facebook, then how come it doesn’t cure the loneliness? There is an allure of the communication style for those with ‘social loneliness’. That is because it allows you, the poster, to announce your updates to the world, without invitation. You don’t have to wait your turn. You can say it, when you want, however you want, and people may choose to ignore you, or not. That becomes a very rewarding experience, especially for those who don’t have those opportunities in real life. The research continues on to say that, “neurotics are more likely to prefer to use the wall, while extroverts tend to use chat features in addition to the wall”. I know why. Chat requires instant talk-back, and neurotics enjoy the beauty of refining their words before commenting on a wall. But why are they neurotic?
Next up in the research is the in-depth analysis of the Like action. Is it “the lazy click of a like” or is it the “direct communication to increase social capital”. For Aspies, it poses a great challenge when a person posts a petition to sign for an endangered species. Do you like that? Absolutely not. The literal interpretation of the Like click can be completely avoided, and bypassed by posting a comment in support of the cause. What seem to make NT’s gain in social capital, actually causes intense social anxiety for Aspies. The Internet Paradox continues.
“Burke’s research does not support the assertion that Facebook creates loneliness. The people who experience loneliness on Facebook are lonely away from Facebook, too.” The author continues to ponder if seeing other people’s happiness makes a person question their own life. Is Facebook peeping more pressuring than keeping up with the Joneses? Finally, the answer. “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.” Bingo. Now that Aspies have a tool, their social capital can prosper. Can NT’s utilize this too? Yes, as long as they use Facebook for the right reasons. Like.
Written by: Henny S.