Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Only the Lonely

Is Friends Replacing Friends? Okay, so the reference is out of date, but the latest Scientific American reports on research that TV can lower feelings of loneliness. Researchers from the University of Buffalo and Miami University reported in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that people who feel lonely feel less lonely while watching their favorite show. They attribute this to a "social surrogacy" effect, with people forming one-sided "relationships" with people and characters on TV and becoming invested in their lives.

I can say that a lot of the shows I have liked had charismatic and memorable characters, from cartoon to reality shows. I watched a lot of TV after school in middle school after I got too old to play Barbies with the neighbor girl across the street. Sometimes, when my parents were away, I just left it on to have someone talking in the background. In contrast, I watched next to no TV in college when I was surrounded by people 24/7.

These authors are building on a long line of media research that shows people treat a lot of things like human beings. In school, we read The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass. The book didn't focus on loneliness, but pointed to 35 studies that showed we have not yet evolved past treating pixels like human beings.

So this study feels right to me. But I still have to wonder, is it the characters on the show, or is it the act of watching TV that alleviates loneliness? I'd like to suggest some follow-up experiments to tease this out:
  • Would people feel less lonely if they watched a nature documentary?
  • If it was a documentary without discernible characters, would it make a difference if the show was narrated or not? In other words, is it enough just to have someone talking? Would it even matter if that narration was in their native language, versus one they were unfamiliar with?
  • Would a show about sociopathic characters, like The Shield or The Sopranos, be more effective than one about a group of friends, like, well, Friends? What about a show that only showed people's work roles without any major story arc, not their personal lives, like Law & Order?
  • What if the show had characters, but they were animals, such as Meerkat Manor? The meerkats had personalities and social and family crises, but didn't talk.
  • What if they watched a new show with characters, rather than a show they liked?
  • What about other media: a non-fiction book? a personal blog? a vlog on YouTube?
My guess is that there would be a range of responses to each of these categories depending on how realistic it might be that this character could exist in real life and how likeable they were. If characters do turn out to be key, TV series creators might turn to this type of research to see what might make a compelling show--and in fact, USA Network has done something terribly similar--it turns out their "Characters Welcome" tag line is not just part of their brand, it is their strategy for producing hits. According to a recent Newsweek article, CEO Bonnie Hammer and her team determine whether they will sign a series based on whether it is "blue sky," "aspirational," "fun," and "character-centric"--all the characteristics of their first recent hit, Monk. So far, it's been a winning strategy.

But enough tips to the marketers--the fact is that Americans have become more and more isolated and this study helps to confirm that TV is part of the problem--after a long commute and a longer day at work, it can be easier to pick up the remote than the phone.

Luckily, research by Barry Wellman at the University of Toronto shows that the internet can help people reconnect and stay in touch with people. Wellman was one of several authors on a 2006 research study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which found that
"...research is showing that the internet is not destroying relationships or causing people to be anti-social. To the contrary, the internet is enabling people to maintain existing ties, often to strengthen them, and at times to forge new ties. The time that most people spend online reduces the time they spend on the relatively unsocial activities of watching TV and sleeping. Moreover, the relationships maintained through online communication only rarely are with an entirely new set of individuals who live far away. Instead, a large amount of the communication that takes place online is with the same set of friends and family who are also contacted in person and by phone. This is especially true for socially close relationships — the more close friends and family are seen in person, the more they are contacted by email.
I have to say that for the last year, surfing the internet and blogging replaced TV as my drug of choice and was probably just as isolating. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop blogging so heavily and instead join Facebook. Sure, part of it was for professional reasons (I'm working on a collaboration environment that will incorporate social networking in it's next major release) but it was also to make sure I kept in touch with people, and in large part, it's worked--casual talk online turns into dinner or lunch plans.

So if you found this blog because you're trying to quit TV, my best advice would be to stop reading this blog and get into an online network. As for me, I'll do my best to write to people I know, rather than this blog.

No comments:

Copyright 2008