New website Cloud Girlfriend is a website where users create fake profiles and interact with each other using them. The premise is that relationships can be faked and there is something enjoyable in faking them. When I learned of the site, I had to wonder, why use this site when there's Facebook? Today, social networks, meant to foster connection, are now really a source of disconnect.
I didn't realize just how bad the situation had become until I created an iPhone application. I was the CEO of a venture-backed technology start-up in Silicon Valley and the stress of the experience revealed cracks in my emotional foundation. I was having all sorts of emotions, and after decades of relentless over-achieving coupled with learning in childhood to suppress my emotions, I was a pot about to boil over.
So I hired a CEO coach and one of the first things she taught me was how to respect my feelings. I appreciated my coach's advice but I realized I was terrible about regularly asking myself how I felt. I decided to create a tool to help myself and when I considered that others might have the same problem I made it public. The application, called gottaFeeling, enables users to track their emotions and includes a feature to share emotions with your friends via Facebook.
What I've learned from users is enlightening. On average, only 30% of the emotions recorded by users of the application are of happiness. The rest of the emotions logged span the gamut of inadequate to angry.
Here's the problem -- almost no one is willing to share the feelings they perceive as "negative." In fact, I was given this specific feedback from many users of the application: "Facebook is a place where people only share good things."
This discovery threw me. If you never share your true emotions with the people in your social network, exactly who are they? Your friends or your audience?
The promise of social networking was to connect us by making it easier to share who we are, but that's actually not how social networks are being used. The social media "profile" has become a façade -- an image of ourselves that doesn't square with reality. The result is an unnerving pressure to be happy and an emotional isolation that is perhaps most detrimental to the creator.
Admittedly, who we are online is often a mere outline of who we really are. But failing to reveal our complexity by sharing emotions demotes social networks and other similar tools to mere technologies -- that at the end of the day change nothing. Poking and liking become only ways to while away the time and the promise of true connection goes unfulfilled to the disadvantage of us all.
Some might argue that current social networks are not set up to limit sharing with those groups with whom they would feel comfortable sharing their feelings -- something that several start-ups are attempting to address by enabling users to carve out more specific social groups.
Still, creating more technology is not going to solve the problem. If we're not willing to share ourselves, then there isn't a "social" technology out there that will fulfill its potential.
The solution? Understanding that there is no "social" without emotion and emotions are many and complex. Basically, we begin to solve the problem when we collectively make it okay to be real. Or in the words of E.M. Forster, "Only connect."