Can you be lonely with half a million friends?

We talk to social media power users about intimacy and vulnerability in the digital age

By Julia Bainbridge
Published January 16, 2018 6:58PM (EST)

In 2016, Australian teenager Essena O’Neill, who had more than half a million followers on Instagram, quit social media altogether. She left a handful of Instagram posts and changed the captions to teach other teens that “living in a 3D world” is much better than obsessing over photos presenting “contrived perfection made to get attention.”

“I was so hungry for social media validation,” she wrote. “Now marks the day I quit all social media and focus on real life projects.”

This detachment from “real life” was, I imagine, a lonely feeling. As one Huffington Post writer put it, “technology has distracted us from the age-old truths of what is most important—true friends whom we can be ourselves in front of, rather than our carefully scripted online persona.”

Does this quote ring true for others?

I first pose this question to Patrick Janelle, also known as @guynamedpatrick on Instagram. He may have 458,000 followers on Instagram, but he gets just as lonely as you do. Or as I do. Or as anyone does.

"I'm not going to show my kind of deepest, darkest moments—that's not how I present myself within my world of social media—so the perception may be that that just doesn't exist," he told The Lonely Hour. But he does, of course, have those moments. "The amount of projects that I take on . . . is a way for me to kind of ignore what life would be like if I weren't busy all the time. The moment that I feel like I've accomplished everything . . . and I can just sit at home by myself, I suddenly become lonely and a little sad."

Molly Guy, owner of bridal showroom Stone Fox Bride, also has a large social media following, and while it’s helpful for promoting her business, she doesn’t deny that the perfect world presented on Instagram has its drawbacks. “The world of social media is not an intimate world,” she says. (P.S. Sorry for the ringing phone. Molly is a busy woman!)

Kat Kinsman, author of "Hi, Anxiety," has a different point of view. She sees a kind of intimacy that can sometimes only come from the channels social media provides us. “Strangers come to me in a really vulnerable way,” she says of people who reach out to her about dealing with anxiety. “Because there isn’t the physical awkwardness of meeting over coffee, we can go right to the headspace. There aren’t these layers between us.”

In the more academic turn that this episode takes, Sydney Engelberg, a professor at both the Hebrew University and Ono Academic College in Jerusalem, makes the case that the rise in social media use and the rise in loneliness are directly related. He wrote a three-part series on the loneliness of social media on Psychology Today after a photo of him went viral; listen to hear him connect the dots.

And finally, Anna Caltabiano is only an undergraduate at Brown, but she’s done a lot of thinking on this topic. “Social media is . . . a bit dangerous. It provides this illusion of being connected, and when we have this illusion of being connected, we no longer seek it out [in real life],” she says.

Listen to the full episode below.

Julia Bainbridge

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