For the uninitiated, how can the lonely their loneliness through social networks?
It makes sense when you think of people’s movements in social networks over some period of time. The lonely may not always have been lonely, but gradually, they tend to cluster together on the periphery of social networks, suggesting that the social connections with other lonely people exacerbates any de facto loneliness they experience. That the lonely would be somewhere on the periphery of social networks is somewhat tautological, but that the lonely would cluster together at the periphery is not, and is surprising.
We’re all aware of how contagious diseases can spread through social networks; when individuals interact, they transmit pathogens back and forth in apparent ways, such as through physical contact or the air. But it’s less obvious how emotions and behaviors spread between people. The idea of spreading loneliness initially seems counterintuitive. After all, don’t lonely people normally keep to themselves? Aren’t they socially isolated, away from where they can spread anything? Not exactly. As the article notes, loneliness and solitude are two different things. Even if people are not physically alone, they can still feel lonely if they perceive their social ties to be weak.
So how might loneliness spread within a social network? Lonely people tend to interact more negatively with people they encounter; they are more unfriendly, more anxious, and in general, more unpleasant to be around. These negative emotions not only induce others to feel and act negatively, but also, over time, they can erode relationships between friends. Strong positive ties grow weaker and weaker, and may even turn negative. Social bonds are lost, leaving the non-lonely people with fewer strong connections and therefore pushing them one more step towards loneliness. Then the cycle repeats itself with those who were “infected” and loneliness spreads throughout the network. A lonely person can easily get stuck in a downward spiral, becoming lonelier as more friends are lost. As a result, lonely people are likely to get pushed to the fringes of the network as they cut ties with friends. Ultimately, you have a weakened network, frayed at the peripheries.