As social media reshapes how we connect, we have to rethink what will make us feel fulfilled in our relationships and realize that no amount of tweets, texts or Facebook updates can provide it. While social networking is a great tool, there’s a profound difference between an online social network and a real one. Despite the fact that there will always be someone, somewhere awake to “like” our latest status update, however witty or banal it may be, when it comes to friends, quantity doesn’t equal quality.
Recent studies have found that despite being more connected than ever, people feel more alone than ever. Surprisingly, those who report feeling most alone are those you’d expect it from least: young people under 35 who are the most prolific social networkers of all.
Another recent study found that 48 percent of respondents only had one confidante compared to a similar study 25 years ago when people said they had about three people they could confide in. So as we have built expansive social networks online, the depth of our networks offline has decreased. It seems that because technology makes it easier to stay in touch while keeping distance, more and more people find themselves feeling distant and never touching.
Human beings crave intimacy—we are wired for it. Yet genuine intimacy demands vulnerability, and vulnerability requires courage. It requires that we lay down the masks we can so easily hide behind online and reveal all of who we are—the good, the bad and the sometimes not so (photo-shopped) pretty.
Social media allow us to control what we share. They appeal to our vulnerability and vanity. We can pick and choose which photos we post and edit our words to ensure we convey the image we want others to see. Yet social media also provide the illusion of friendship that in real life may be shallow, superficial and unable to stand the demands and pressures of genuine friendship.
Digital communication can never replace in person, face-to-face contact in building relationships, personal and professional. As a study by Harvard Business Review found, team performance went up 50 percent when teams socialized more and limited email to operational issues. But whether loneliness leads people to the Internet, or the Internet to loneliness, it seems that many of us use the Internet to avoid being alone with ourselves. As Sherri Turkle author of Alone Together wrote, until we learn how to be okay with solitude, we are not going to be able to connect deeply with others.
Social networking provides a means of escaping confronting aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish were different, better, more glamorous or less mundane. It’s an all too convenient tool for avoiding harsh realities and playing pretend with our lives. Online websites promise avatars that allow us to love our bodies and our lives, but at what cost to the real life we have to face when we close our computer down?
Don’t get me wrong: online technology is not some “necessary evil.” Far from it. It’s a magnificent tool for staying in touch with people across miles, time zones and years. We’ve all witnessed it’s power in rallying people behind noble causes, overthrowing governments (as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring), enabling people in isolated corners of the globe to plug into resources and information they could never otherwise access, and providing opportunities to conduct business more efficiently than ever before. But like all tools, we have to learn how to use it well, and not let it use us.
As we rely on technology to communicate more efficiently in the global world, we mustn’t lose touch with the physical community around us or forget that the human element within relationships can never be replaced by technology. The more we rely on technology in our lives, the more willing we must be to turn it off and spend time with people, without our gadgets beeping at us to return texts that aren’t worth our time in the first place.
Seven Strategies for Building a REAL Social Network
Turn off your gadgets and take time to engage with people, in person and face-to-face. A night at home with 500 of your FB friends can never compare with an evening out with five friends, or even one friend. If you can’t connect face-to-face, at least switch off the computer and pick up the phone for a meaningful conversation.
2. Become a better listener.
We talk too much and listen too little. Learn to listen well and be okay with occasional stumbles. You can’t (and shouldn’t) edit real conversation. It’s when we hesitate, stumble, or simply find ourselves sitting in silence that we reveal ourselves to others and connect most deeply. As I’ve said before, we connect to others through our vulnerabilities, not through our brilliance.
3. Engage in your community.
Get involved in your local community or neighborhood. Join the local tennis club, volunteer to help clean up a park, or help at a local service organization.
4. Practice conversation.
If you are out of practice at meeting people, take small steps. Make the most of any chance for social contact, whether it’s speaking to the local greengrocer or responding to a fellow bus passenger who strikes up a conversation. For some people, just making eye contact can be difficult. So it may be that you have to begin with just that.
5. Find like minds.
Join a class or find an interest group. Getting to know new people can be part of the learning process. Whether you enjoy winetasting, watercolor painting, hiking, or going to the movies, there’s bound to be an interest group in your area where you can meet like-minded people.
6. Reconnect with long lost friends.
Pick up the phone and call an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch. See if your friend would like to meet for coffee. He or she will probably be delighted to hear from you, and will enjoy reconnecting every bit as much as you do.
7. Invite people over.
Some of the best conversations happen over coffee or casual meal. Yes it may be a bit scary, but real connection will always demand a degree of risk and vulnerability. Then again, what worthwhile endeavor doesn’t?
About the Author
Margie Warrell, best-selling author of Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless in Work & Life(McGraw-Hill Professional), is an executive life coach and keynote speaker who is passionate about empowering women to think bigger, expand their vision of what’s possible, and to live and lead more courageously. With her down to earth Australian humor and working mother-of-four pragmatism, Margie draws on her background in psychology and Fortune 500 business to show others how to leverage adversity and take their lives to new levels of success and fulfillment. The “Resident Coach” on Let’s Talk Live (Washington, D.C.’s daily talk show), Margie also shares her expertise regularly on national media including The TODAY Show, CNBC and Fox News. To get her free Live Boldly! newsletter or other great resources please visit www.margiewarrell.com