Our future depends on each of us feeling heard, seen, and loved. This may sound strangely emotional coming from someone in technology, but there are decades of research to support the idea that love and support, real connection, and the ability to feel authentic and empowered are human needs that allow us to become our best selves.
And right now, despite an explosion in social-media and other types of digital-communication technologies, we’re experiencing a well-documented loneliness epidemic. And as far as public health crises go, this one feels serious. Nearly 50% of Americans report feeling alone or left out all the time, and the leader of a recent study estimated that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
While social media use wasn’t the only contributor to loneliness cited in the study, it was notable among them. This “social media paradox” refers to the idea that while social media has given us the means to connect with hundreds of people, it doesn’t support real connection. Instead, we use social media to make outward-facing bids for attention and then judge our worth by the number of likes and hits. Rather than make good on its promise of authentic interactions, social media contributes to feelings of distance and isolation.
Texting is another example of a communication technology that has become ubiquitous, but falls short when it comes to our most important relationships. Texting is about speed, brevity, efficiency. A huge part of our day-to-day interaction takes place in texts, but tone, emotion, and context — which help provide our “emotional nutrition” — are absent. We might feel like we’re talking, but we’re really just typing.
As a tech company founder, I’ve watched the evolution in these spaces. When my husband and I started a family, the limitations of social media and other available communication tools really began to affect us on a personal level.
We are both immigrants to the U.S. and have family spread across the country and other parts of the world, and it was extremely important that our kids and our families be part of each other’s lives. But communication technology came up short. Sending text messages and emails felt one-dimensional, and social media felt like a place to put a “highlight reel” instead of a way to have real conversations — assuming people saw our posts in the first place. Video calls were more personal because we could talk face-to-face, but with all the family members, the schedule of chats could easily take up an entire weekend where we’d be stuck somewhere with “good WiFi” so we could talk without dropping the connection.
There were so many ways to connect, but we didn’t feel any closer to each other. We weren’t truly part of each other’s lives.
This was the genesis of the company we founded seven years ago, Marco Polo*. Knowing that our industry had the technical capabilities down, it was time to build a product that could truly offer a way to have deep, authentic relationships with loved ones. Instead of inviting competition and comparison, we wanted to engineer a platform that would help people, one-on-one and in groups, feel closer to each other. We wanted to create a place where loved ones could be part of each other’s day in a way that was honest, genuine, and mutually supportive.
We now hear daily from people who use our technology for exactly this purpose. As we bring millions of people together, we’re also working to get research-based findings about how the app improves social health by connecting people in emotionally nutritious ways. In the meantime, through the evolution of Marco Polo and our business, I’ve learned a lot about what we can do on a personal level to feel closer to each other. Here are a few suggestions:
Prioritize face-to-face — Even when we feel busy, carving out time to be with people we care about is one of the best things we can do for our health. Short, frequent face-to-face contact goes a long way toward maintaining closeness between visits or longer conversations. For instance, I talk to one of my best friends regularly on our company’s app, and then we schedule a long phone call once a month. We usually talk while I take a walk, which is a great way to invest deeply in our relationship while I get my exercise outside.
Take your group chat to video — One of the best things about group chats or texts is that we can check in and respond when it’s convenient for us. Did you know you can also do this with video messages? Going beyond text — actually seeing your friends’ faces — makes a huge difference.
Invite loved ones to join in on your favorite activities — A weekend in nature is a great (and affordable!) way to spend quality time with family, and we often invite another family to join us. This summer we’ll be using Hipcamp to book a camping trip in California.
Find someone who’s experiencing a similar life situation — We’ve heard stories from so many vulnerable people about how their lives have changed for the better through daily face-to-face connections: moms with postpartum depression, elderly people who live alone, people with disabilities that have left them housebound. Loneliness can occur during any life stage, and being able to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through can be a huge relief.
I see exciting shifts starting to happen across other communication platforms. I was encouraged by a recent report suggesting that Instagram is experimenting with hiding the number of likes a post gets from everyone but the person who posted it. There have also been hints that Twitter is considering changes in the way they report engagement on the site. These are indicators that others in the software community agree that we can do more to strengthen the bonds of connection and help battle the loneliness epidemic.
As daunting as the research surrounding loneliness can seem, I’m convinced that with the help of our technology superpowers, we’ll soon be able to stop worrying about connection and instead we will simply connect. Humans are, after all, biologically wired to connect. It’s only reasonable that our technology should do the same.
How do you create connections in your own life? What tools and services would you like to see from us or other companies that are developing social enterprises online (or even off)? I’d love to hear your story.
Vlada Bortnik is the CEO & Co-founder of Marco Polo
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