If you’re into reading about technology, you’ve likely heard of Sherry Turkle.
As someone who has been studying technology use for decades, has written multiple books on the topic, and is a professor at MIT, she’s among the most prominent critical voices in the discussion of technology and our use of it.
Turkle used to be a digital enthusiast—until one encounter with, interestingly, a socially responsive robot called a “Cog.” In the course of their research, she and a colleague went to see the robot, which (who?) zeroed in on her colleague and ignored her.
“Cog showed no interest in my presence at all. Intellectually, I knew there was some technical explanation—for example, Cog might be programmed to attend to the color red, whereas I was dressed in black—but at the time this knowledge seemed of little use,” she admits in the preface to the 2017 edition of her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. “I felt competitive and jealous. I wanted Cog to notice me.”
This may seem like a futuristic, even dystopian, way to begin our conversation about technology. Robots—at least of the embodied (and apparently rude) variety described by Turkle—occupy very niche markets today, and they’re certainly not the first things that come to mind when someone says “technology use” or “digital addiction.”
And yet, Turkle’s anecdote is relevant even for the majority of us for whom social media and smartphones are the primary technological experiences. Is our vulnerability to our own social media connections so different from Turkle’s to the “social” robot, mediated as they are by algorithms and devices?
Let’s consider a more relatable scenario: you posted something on Instagram, but it didn’t get as many likes as you expected. You know that the time of day, the frequency or infrequency with which you post, or whatever else is going on in your followers’ feeds could all influence the number of likes it garnered more than the content of the post itself. But the rejection still stings—and on a highly personal level.
As Turkle explains in Alone Together, technology is dangerous where it meets our vulnerabilities. How might social media be playing into our inherent human weaknesses?
Recent research suggests that we’re getting lonelier.
A 2018 Cigna study revealed that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Another 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Economist found that twenty-two percent of American adults always or often feel lonely. And while most people consider the elderly the most at risk for loneliness—and to be clear, they are at risk; recent data suggests that as Americans age, they spend increasingly more of their time alone—Generation Z scored highest on Cigna’s loneliness scale as compared to older generations. Just two weeks ago, new survey data indicated that one in five millennials say they have no friends.
The health implications are grave, even beyond psychological health risks like depression and anxiety. According to some researchers, chronic loneliness is the equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Others have noted that it is linked to inflammation, high blood pressure, heart disease, even early death.
Dire though the purported effects may be, they tell us what we already know intuitively: that the strength of our social connections is as important as any other measure of health.
But what makes a social connection strong? Is it the frequency with which we spend time with someone? Similar values? A long, shared history? Finding the same things funny?
None of these are insignificant, and everything from literature to television to research has explored the topic of friendship from myriad angles. But there’s one aspect of our relationships that gets less airtime, maybe for its subtlety: feeling known.
From our brain patterns to how we fight, whether we feel understood in a relationship affects quite a bit. A simple gut check corroborates it: do you prefer the company of people who don’t know you well, even if they like you? Or do you most deeply appreciate those in your life who know you at your best and worst—and still love you? According to the Cigna study, twenty-seven percent of respondents said they “rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.”
One in four Americans rarely or never feel known.
The kind of understanding we desire exists on so many levels: the superficial, like your friend remembering how you take your coffee; the relational, like your sister recognizing and acting according to your love language; the historical, like introducing your fiancé to your family for the first time. Being known is as complex as we are ourselves. And feeling anonymous, misunderstood, or overlooked is a wound that many of us have experienced at some point or another, in a variety of relational contexts.
Living life online
The way this vulnerability plays out online is twofold. The first is the enduring temptation to overshare.
Part relic of the early days of Facebook—when your “friends” were fewer and, in a truer sense, your friends—part imitation of the numerous lifestyle influencers we see in our feeds, posting about the minutiae of our days isn’t inherently bad. In fact, one of the gifts of social media, particularly Instagram, is the ability to share a piece of beauty, a thoughtful insight, or a moment of gratitude.
But when does sharing become oversharing? I doubt it’s as much the content of a post in many cases as it is the intention behind posting. Let’s go back to our Instagram example: when we’ve posted a photo that didn’t get a lot of attention. Why does that hurt sometimes? Is it because we’re disappointed that other people weren’t impressed by our photography and photo-editing skills? Or is it because in posting it, we were asking for too much in return? Is our search for “likes” a proxy for feeling known?
Second, the way we’ve populated our feeds with influencers introduces a distinct, but related danger. There are, of course, the obvious problems with following too many Pinterest-perfect influencers—when I realized I’d spent more time in #TheLarsonHouse than my own friends’ apartments, my dissatisfaction with my own home decor made more sense—but there’s a deeper reason that so many of the more popular accounts in our feeds often leave us feeling empty.
We don’t know these individuals personally . . . except that we do. We know what the interiors of their homes look like. We know their children’s names and ages. We know what books they read, brands they prefer (or are paid by), foods they eat, and often even what struggles they face. But while we may feel as if they’re friends—and, indeed, their posts show up among those of the people we know in real life—they don’t know us from Eve.
In other words, our relationships with influencers are inherently one-sided. We know them, but we’re not known by them. No matter how well-intentioned the influencer, it’s simply a matter of numbers: thousands—or even millions—against one.
Living life offline
So what do we do when our social media use leaves us feeling anonymous or unimportant? Is it time to shut down our accounts?
Not necessarily. And, in fact, I should note that not everyone feels this way, or at least as strongly. (When I broached the topic with a friend, she said that while she agreed with my assessment, she does still find inspiration from many of the influencers in her feed—thousands of other followers notwithstanding.)
But awareness is the first step toward solving any problem, big or small. Taking care not to put too much of ourselves online, in this case, maybe the next, and curating the accounts we follow with a bit more intentionality the third. (A break from social media altogether, if you feel it’s needed, won’t hurt anything. I took the first half of this year off from Instagram, and I have to admit that I was surprised by how little I missed it.)
More important than these, though, is spending time with the people who know and love us. To go back to Sherry Turkle and her robot, technology is dangerous where it touches upon our weaknesses. The more we strengthen our relationships offline, the less we’ll need to look to social media to fill that void—and, in so doing, reduce its threat to our mental and emotional health.
Editors’ note: In the spirit of this piece, Verily neither asks its editors to build their own personal platforms nor features readers’ personal lives on its social channels. If you’d like to support our mission to empower women to be more of who they are, subscribe to Verily Yours. Your subscription gives you exclusive content (different from our website content) and supports our publication, including our efforts to develop a print magazine—further helping women to live more meaningful lives offline. Subscribe here.