This is the Modem World: Social networking makes us feel alone

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|07.25.13

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This is the Modem World: Social networking makes us feel alone

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I was listening to someone, somewhere, on something -- not really sure where, and it doesn't matter -- but someone said that they'd rather be alone than have friends who make them feel alone. It's probably been said by many people in many different ways, but for some reason, that saying has attached itself to me as I engage in my twice-daily social networking while comparing it to what I'm actually doing in my downtime that doesn't qualify as "work."

Social networks make us feel alone. I'm not claiming to be the first to notice this, but now that there's a social network for pictures, for videos, for 140-character updates, for business networking, for food, for our pets...

I've been on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others since their inceptions because I'm a huge nerd, but also for a much more insidious reason that I'll get to in a bit. I was on Friendster resisting Myspace resisting Facebook, and so on -- I even worked at the short-lived '90s online community. In the end, I kept up with whatever was the latest and in each case, I carried friends over from network to network, gaining some on the way, losing others on the way back.

Here's the deal: I'm pretty sure I suffer from social anxiety not because I was born with it, but because of all these social networks. I suddenly find myself worrying more than I should about what others are thinking or doing, wanting to be part of the crowd, feeling left out even when I already have something to do. This has plagued me -- a pathetic first-world problem for sure -- for as long as I can remember: In the '80s, I had to be a member of the best BBS in Orange County. In the '90s, I had to be a moderator of the best music board on Usenet. And in the 2000s, I had to be on whatever social network was in until it was out. Social networks are like nightclubs: They pop onto the scene; they're hard to get into at first -- you have to be invited -- then they become "the thing." Then people are over them and they move on to the next hot spot.

Social networks are the stuff of nightmares for someone like me. I never say no to friend requests. I wish I was part of every single conversation, and if what I'm doing isn't liked or retweeted by every single one of my "friends," I feel incomplete.

I'm exaggerating a bit. Let me make this clear: I'm not checking my social networks all the time. I have a job, hobbies, a family and other things to do, and at the end of the day, I don't let these things bother me.

That all said, I find that checking in to my social networks is a stressful, anxious thing. I immediately feel as though everyone but me has an incredibly interesting life, that they are out having amazing dinners with amazing people, and most importantly, why wasn't I invited? I don't care if you live in Tokyo: given enough notice, I'd fly out there and join you for shabu-shabu!

No, I wouldn't. But I want to be invited.

In short, social networking, even when I check in while having dinner with the most amazing people on earth, makes me feel alone. It's a bizarre irony that I -- and I assume some of you -- are faced with.

And yet we keep doing it. We're addicted to the difference potential between what we're doing and what others are up to.

But then there are those moments that make us feel oh so good when we get a retweet, a like, a heart, a whatever the thingy is doing to whatever we did. Judge me for being caught up in it all, but the alternative is one of digital reclusiveness.

The other morning, I was listening to Howard Stern interview Alec Baldwin who was talking about how he's had to wean himself from Twitter because he gets himself into trouble too often in 140 characters. Imagine that meeting with his agent:

Agent: "Alec, you gotta stop tweeting. This isn't good for you."

Alec: "But I can't stop. I get so many retweets!"

His solution? He'd only retweet other tweets. In short, he's an addict learning to deal with his problems. Alec Baldwin, the coolest suit-wearing exec on TV, one of the greatest SNL hosts ever -- even he lets social networks get to him.

I've run into people -- more than once -- who have sworn off Facebook, Twitter or some other social network. They tell me that they couldn't be happier. But I'd be willing to bet that they still peek in every so often. They're simply saying, smugly, "I didn't want to come anyway."

Social networking rewards us for being social with people we're not actually being social with. It validates us. We already know our real friends like us. But we want likes from those who weren't invited or weren't there to begin with. How messed up is that?

All of this is nothing new -- humans, as social creatures, have always sought validation from one another for the things that they do, and that support from those they don't know so well is, in a way, social currency that gives them a sense of fame and power. Clearly not everyone reads this much into social networking, and only the weirdos like me let it get to them, and that's a fair assessment.

But clearly I'm not alone.

Or am I? Add me?

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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