Social networks need more social, less network

Should help people make new friends, not pointless lists

Richard Cobbett

Feeling lonely on the internet is an odd sensation, but a survey suggests it's a growing problem.

At the click of a mouse, you can connect with millions of people – and not just random members of the smelly flesh-army that is humanity, but people who share your interests, actually want to talk and may even type 'LOL' at your jokes.

It's just not the same, though. A whopping 60 per cent of tech-savvy people aged 18 to 35 are apparently complaining of often feeling lonely, as opposed to just 35 per cent of the traditionally isolated over-55s. This is the age group for whom services like Facebook have supposedly done wonders for staying in touch.

Obviously, all surveys of this ilk should be taken with a pinch of salt capable of melting a glacier, but this one wouldn't surprise me.

For starters, if you're feeling down, sometimes a social service is the last thing you want to be plugged into. Either you're one click away from seeing what a much better day everyone you know is having, whether they're splashing on the beach or preparing for a party you'd have been blissfully unaware of not having been invited to, or it's the interactive equivalent of a grey weekend in Norwich – everyone complaining of how much they're sitting around in the rain, breaking up with their former loved ones, drowning in a treacle sea of underpaid work and just generally having a lousy epoch.

Gaming separation

It's a wider issue than just Facebook, though. Take gaming. Back in the day, you had just one console and friends would come round to play things like Mario Kart with you on a split-screen display. People would get together for LAN parties and head to cybercafés.

Now, multiplayer gaming's primarily done online, with players sitting alone and communicating on headphones. Not only are we separated by distance, we're separated by our characters. Nobody ever called their friend 'Yoshi' during a Mario Kart race, but play something like World of Warcraft and if it's not a character name you go by, you simply become 'the tank' or 'the mage' – just one cog out of 25.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. Rock Band is a great example of a game where people still get together to play, as are a number of Wii games. In general, though, as online games get more social, they're getting lonelier. Even lonelier than single-player games in many ways, thanks to providing a weak, unsatisfying experience rather than an alternative.

Social networking is increasingly following suit, with the sheer volume of content spewing out of the pipes. Recently, it's just mass shouting. Nobody really cares what your Spotify playlists are, any more than clicking a Facebook 'Like' button can replace actually telling someone that you liked something.

That's not to say that these things can't be useful in their own right – 'Like' buttons are fine for highlighting new content you might not otherwise have seen (seeing that someone's watching a new show is good for remembering that it's on), but it's not so much social as a replacement for it.

Meaningless sharing

The lack of effort means that people are sharing more, but also that it doesn't actually mean anything. It's the online equivalent of the ubiquitous 'Alright, mate?'

One of the most surprising things about all this social interaction is how little it focuses on actual real-world connections, especially given the sheer weight of information in the much-ballyhooed social graphs everyone wants to build up.

Take online dating for instance. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg claims that by looking at online profiles, he can tell who's going to hook up with whom, which is a good trick. Yet still Facebook lacks any real service that skips the usual questionnaires and glorified personal adverts in favour of just looking at your data and interests and saying 'You, call You'.

Foursquare focuses on checking into places and sharing that information, but only as far as making up silly games about mayors and meeting up with existing friends, not trying expand your real-life social network by suggesting: 'Why not say hello to these people next time you're there.'

There are so many things that social networking could offer if it focused more on the social side: actually meeting people and doing things, instead of just building endless lists of friends you hardly see any more.

As it is, it's providing endless ways of keeping us trapped at our PCs, making sure that our music choices and profile pictures say what we want them to, and that no friends will mock us for having an overgrown Farmville. No wonder so many of us are feeling lost in the cloud.

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