Yet now, seven years after Baudrillard passed away, we have created entire personas mediated through online platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etcetera. But we use these mediatized personalities to connect with other people. Even if we are watching Wheel of Fortune alone at home, if we are simultaneously tweeting at a friend then the night is still a social one.
The question, then, is whether these relationships in the virtual world are still the same as relationships pursued in the real world or is there a fundamental difference, as Baudrillard would have claimed? Can we still call love “love” if it’s passing through a screen?
For the past decade, Paul J. Zak, a professor of neuro-economics at the Claremont Graduate University who sometimes goes by “Dr. Love,” has been conducting studies on how relationships maintained over social media differ from relationships in real life. What he has found is that there’s hardly any difference at all.
“It’s as if the brain doesn’t really differentiate between you posting on social media and you being there in person,” he told me. “We’re such hyper-social creatures that we have a large release of dopamine when we’re with other people. But we can also get that release through Twitter or any social media, really.”
Zak recounts a test he ran with the journalist Adam Penenberg, asking him to engage his Twitter followers for 10 minutes. Penenberg used the time to respond to a few strangers’ tweets and to make a 122-character joke about the way his GPS pronounces words. Zak tested Penenberg’s blood both before and after the exercise, and found that in just those 10 minutes, Penenberg’s oxytocin levels rose by 13.2 percent and his stress hormones decreased by about 13 percent. Zak told me that the oxytocin boost Penenberg got from this mediated social interaction was similar to what a groom experiences before his wedding.
In the most extreme such test, Zak recorded a 150 percent increase in oxytocin in a South Korean man who spent the allotted 10 minutes posting to his girlfriend’s Facebook page.
“It was just off the charts.” Zak said, “Most people have an increase of 15 to 20 percent. It was just crazy. But all people—100 percent—we have tested all had an increase in oxytocin from using all kinds of social media.”
People with more friends tend to get sick less often and even tend to live longer than people with smaller social circles. And the conclusion Zak has come to is that social networking can not only reduce many of the health risks associated with loneliness—notably, heart attack and stroke—but that the brain interprets using Twitter or Facebook in a nearly identical way to speaking to someone face-to-face.
Yet amidst all this good news, it’s possible that the connectivity that social media allows could be too good. Some research suggests that, as if on a sliding scale, the more engaged we are with people online, the less engaged we become with people in real life, which, ironically, makes us even lonelier.