Isolation and Social Media


October 2015
Ivan Obolensky

Social media has been ongoing for some time. Some people love it. Others hate it. Many use it, but with reservations. It has tremendous upsides, such as being able to keep in contact with family and friends in a way that was previously impossible. It has equally large downsides. It can become addictive, waste an amazing amount of time, and lead to injuries, particularly when posting while walking and a lamp post appears out of nowhere. What is it about social media that gives one pause and why?

An earlier article, Incompleteness and the Imagination, explained that what we perceive the world to be is not necessarily the world as it is. We know this because much of the raw input, either through sight, feeling, hearing, or smell, has to be processed and modified before it eventually gets to the brain and we experience the world the way we do.

A more mundane way to embrace this process is to think of typing on a keyboard. The results that appear on the screen in the form of letters are not the typing of the keys. The output is different from the input. Electronic signals, software programs, and processing chips render the action of typing into letters that we look at on the computer screen. Observing the entire system from a distance allows one to reflect that the action of tapping one’s fingers creates letters, two very different things. Taking this a step farther, the letters are grouped into words, which have meaning, which we then pass on through a whole other set of systems and servers if we decide to email or post what we have written. The receiver’s systems then reverse the process in order to put the message in a format that can be read and understood. Once again, the input and output are different from each other.

One of the precepts of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is that the mind receives information through the senses. The senses, whether sight, smell, taste, etc., are called modalities. These modalities are representational systems. They represent the world to us as we perceive it1.

From a more abstract point of view, each sense could be considered a variable that takes on different values. In high school algebra, we represent various figures such as a circle, a line, a parabola, on a sheet of graph paper by plotting two such variables that are related in a specific way. The results when we change the values are the figures we draw. As we add more and more variables and try to plot the values, the number of axes increases to the point that it becomes impossible to conceive of them in three dimensions.

Mathematicians refer to every conceivable value of all the variables we are using as a “state space”. Each specific value of each of the variables at one exact moment in time define a point in that space2. A coin toss has a state space of two, while a die has a state space of six. If we were to represent each variable as one of our senses and the feelings we get from each sense as a value, we could represent what we are perceiving as a specific point in that state space. Each point defines an exact combination of senses and degrees of perception. Now imagine that each of the values of these points can change. We create a sequence of perceptions similar to a motion picture.

The interesting part comes when we reverse the process. When we take a specific point and turn it back into sense information, we re-present to ourselves what we experienced. When we remember something such as a dog, we revisit the point in the state space that we recorded to represent a dog. Since individuals experience and record these points from a different point of view, one from the other, the point in that state space that represents a dog is different for every person. Thus we are all unique.

How many modalities or senses do we have? A great many, but luckily we rely mostly on about six3.

There are thought to be 1080 fundamental particles in the universe. If we consider that each one of our senses can take on a near infinite number of values, is it any wonder that we have an entire universe in our minds4?

The mind has yet another feature: it can think about what it is doing. It can self-reference. We can “see” ourselves thinking about thinking or doing something that has not happened yet. It does this by changing and modifying the values of the variables in the state space and drawing conclusions.

All that we consider knowledge and awareness can be represented by points in the state space and the abstract conclusions we draw from them.

Is this really the way we think? Not necessarily, it is a possible model, but looking at online relationships in this way can be useful.

When two people meet and have a conversation from the viewpoint of a state space, they experience it through all their senses and have many variables in common. One could consider that the space created from the interaction is rich.

Interactions that occur online are different in that there are fewer senses at play, which means fewer variables and a much smaller state space that represents the interaction.

A way to visualize this is by means of two intersecting circles. One circle can represent oneself and one’s own state space. The other could be someone else with their state space. In the real world, when two people meet and interact, the state space of the two individuals have points in common. This is represented by the area where the circles overlap. Representing an online relationship in the same way, the circles would be farther apart and the area of intersection would be much smaller*.

In the case of interacting online with family members where there is a great deal of previous history, the state space in common is smaller than when they meet face-to-face, but certainly larger when compared to that of a new contact one knows nothing about except as a friend of a friend.

What does this mean? Suppose we want to create a ‘real’ relationship online. In order to have a richer relationship from such a limited form of interaction requires that we supplement the experience with additional variables and points in our own state space that we create ourselves. If we ask someone who uses social media a lot whether such a relationship is real and tangible, they will certainly answer yes. And that it true for them. They have augmented their perception of the relationship with points of their own creation to give it the richness they desire. One of the outcomes is that their manufactured map, or state space, has only a small grounding in the real world. The relationship may be real and rich to them but it may not necessarily correspond with what would have occurred had it occurred face-to-face.

The relationship could be considered more synthetic than those outside the Internet because much of it is self-manufactured. Discerning the truth online is a great deal more difficult because the state space is small to begin with. In face-to-face conversations one has much more information to draw on in order to discern whether the person speaking is being honest, or not. One also has the use of intuition, which might be thought to be conclusions drawn with the use of sensory data of which we are not analytically aware. We receive far more information than we are able to process. If it were available all at once it would be overwhelming, so instead we are selective. Occasionally, conclusions from this mass of data come to us as flashes of insight and intuition. The richer the state space to begin with, the more likely this will occur.

Online interactions are considered easier to start because there is less effort (smaller state space) required at the beginning. There is less chance of experiencing potential rejection personally compared with person-to-person contact.

Once started, an online relationship requires a larger personal investment to make them more real. It is easy to manufacture the required information to do so. One can imagine all kinds of things about the other party. Anything is possible simply because there is no way to anchor the relationship to a definite reality. We can project onto the other party far more than might be warranted. The state space of the actual relationship is small and fits into any number of imagined state spaces.

Nonetheless, relationships online can be very rewarding because of this self-created element. We can make them what we want them to be rather than what they actually are. It is far easier to use our imagination than actually interact with a real person who will not necessarily meet our expectations.

One hears of adolescents reacting adversely to online rejection or bullying. They become vulnerable in the extreme, which makes sense because much of the relationship is what they themselves perceive it to be. Secondly, because they are connected to an entire network of individuals that see everything that is posted, it is difficult to differentiate the single individual originator from everyone who was exposed to the posting and may or may not have the same point of view. If this is your entire social world, it can be devastating.

How important is it to have social interactions that use the entire state space we have available as opposed to the limited state space defined by online interactions?

A recent study of 11,000 adults found that replacing face-to-face contact with emails, texts, tweets, postings, and phone calls led to double the risk of depression. Those who meet family and friends at least three times per week were far less likely to suffer from depressive symptoms within a two-year period (6.5%) compared with those who had face-to-face contact once every three months (11.5%).

Regular or even increased contact by electronic means did not make up for the lack of face-to-face communication.

The study also found that the older one is, the more important person-to-person contact appears to be.

Richness of experience and social interaction are important for the health of human beings. Stable, happy friends can make a huge difference to how we view the world. Such attitudes turn out to be contagious while the moods of depressed people are not as much5.

Humans and many other social creatures, such as elephants, insects, herding animals and others, do not do well in isolation.

With a restricted state space, interactions online via email and social media are not a substitute for real world face-to-face contact.

Whether by accident or design, in spite of all our “connectivity”, we are actually more isolated than we have ever been. As more and more human interactions move online, it is likely that this sense of isolation and individuality will only increase. Simply turning it all off is a solution, but it is not a workable one. Perhaps by understanding the mechanics involved we can steel ourselves to take what appears to be a harder and harder choice: see people, talk to people, and interact with them face-to-face. A synthetic relationship, no matter how modern and connected we feel about it with our electronic devices, is no substitute for the real thing.


*In this example the area decreases inversely by the square of the distance between the two centers so moving the circles farther apart reduces this area of intersection very rapidly.



  1. Hall, L.M. (2006). Figuring Out People. NSP: Neuro-Semantic Publications: Clifton, CO.
  2. Susskind, L. and Hrabovsky, G. (N.D.). The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics. Penguin Electronic Books.
  3. Hall, op cit.
  4. Mastin, L. (2009) The Universe by Numbers. Retrieved October 7, 2015 from
  5. Donelly, L. (2015). Low levels of face-to-face social contact ‘can double depression risk’. The Telegraph. Retrieved October 7, 2015 from



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© 2015 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Silvia

    As always very rich in information and new views, thank you Ivan.

    I tend to agree that social media has a high reach for information, however, the warm human contact established in person to person interactions gets lost
    in the mechanical media interchange of ideas. And that, human warm, can never be replaced by a mechanical communication.

    The span of effects has been explained by this article and in a not too far future we may be able to see the possible adverse effects of lack of direct human contact. We shall see.

    In the meantime we could maintain and re-enforce those real human relations while trying to create new ones.


    • Ivan

      I agree. Electronic communications are high in quantity but low in quality. As you say we’ll just have to let it play out, but I would wager there will be less connection in a real sense and more isolation.

  2. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin10-17-2015

    Nice article. On-line communication can be a tricky thing sometimes. I think we should increase our state space very soon! See you.

  3. Cristi Echavarria
    Cristi Echavarria09-01-2017

    Nice analysis Ivan, it is daunting to think of the great amount of people who might be living only in hundreds of small space states, and no face-to-face in the future. Luckily, there is an increasing number of intelligent and sensible young people out there who are aware of this great risk of state space loneliness.

    • Ivan

      We can only hope. I think we may see a blowback against electronics and technology in general as more people decide to opt out. How this will play out will definitely be of interest.

  4. Silvia

    Very interesting subject, one that I had given thought to more than once.

    There is nothing that can replace direct human contact, the exchange of emotions, ideas, shared losses or successes with another human being.

    If you limit yourself to emails, chats and what not you are introverted, inwardly thinking if the person you started that online relationship is right or not, embedded only on your thoughts and conclusions.

    As you noted Ivan, it is different with close family and very close friends, but here the electronic exchanges are shorter and to the point.

    I’ve seen younger people introverted on the cell phone; I may have started a communication and the person answering has a sort of a blank look and, if at all, gives only a fast acknowledgement; his/her attention is still introverted to whatever he/she was looking at in the cell phone. They tend to walk slower and observe less.

    Yes, technology has many plus points and this is an evolution that will continue but, again, no cell phone, email or chat will ever replace real, warm human contact…not even a Samsung or an Apple!!

    • Ivan

      Very true. The line between virtual and real is getting blurred. Of course, all this is dependent on the fact that the network to handle all this traffic continues to exist. It may not. Stranger things have happened. There are no guarantees that it will.

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