Despite living in a world where we’re supposedly more ‘connected’ than ever—social media users increased 4.2% in 2022—people are increasingly feeling more isolated, suggesting that despite our infinite ways to connect via modern devices and virtual worlds, something is amiss.
A report by TBWA Backslash Asia, found that with society no longer built to facilitate face-to-face interactions, people are struggling to find meaningful connection in their lives, with over one third of adults worldwide experiencing feelings of loneliness.
Social media no substitute for in-person interaction
Loneliness and lack of face-to-face interaction was of course exacerbated by the pandemic and the various lockdowns that many of us endured.
“While technology has enabled us to be more connected than ever before, the psychology of humans is that we need other people around. Oxytocin is released when hugs go for 20 seconds or more. Our human biology is designed that two people produce more people,” says Alison Ray, general manager of independent Melbourne-based creative agency Town Square.
“When you remove the social and physical connection and purely rely on technology, you miss much of human interaction,” adds Ray. “You are relying only on sight and sound—and with 55% of communication being nonverbal, the lonelier we are, the less able we are to pick up on signals from others.”
Jon Skinner, co-founder and creative partner at The Core Agency, says that the media storm about the connective power of social media is largely whipped up by… social media.
“Platforms such as TikTok are the total antithesis of connectivity,” says Skinner. “Users are no doubt connected (if not addicted) to the platform itself, but their relationship with the actual content and its creators is mostly superficial and disposable. With the currency of Likes and Follows going south, the real champions of ‘digital connection’ are the active communities including Discord, Reddit and the like.”
Seeking real connection beyond the superficial chase for likes and follows
Studies show that social media can help tackle loneliness by making it easier to keep in touch, interact, and forge connections that can add vitality to existing relationships. But, on the other hand, being glued to our screens and using it as a substitute for real-life interaction can worsen feelings of loneliness—especially if these connections don’t provide true support or create feelings of belonging.
“Too much social media can also lead to social comparison and feelings of inadequacy that elevate loneliness,” says Jin Wong, senior strategist at TBWASingapore. “So, it’s not social media itself, but the way we integrate it into our lives and relationships which affects our ability to create meaningful connection and value.”
Alison Ray at Town Square points out that in addition to the dangers of over using social media, the chase for approval online has become, in many cases, more important than real connection.
“We have learnt to confuse short term pleasure (someone liked my photo) with real happiness (lasting, meaningful, satisfying),” says Ray. “The portrayal only can be carefully edited and curated —and often doesn’t show the struggle that is part of every life. Moreover, the incidences of online bullying and cancel culture can have detrimental impacts on mental health.”
But post pandemic, there are signs we are shifting towards cultivating deeper connections, and more genuine relationships with the people and the world around us.
According to a report by Vice Media, 68% of APAC youth say the pandemic has changed their perspective on what’s important in life. They are increasingly defining their identity through the people they surround themselves with. The number one aspect they plan to focus on more post-pandemic is their relationships and loved ones.
“Prevailing social media platforms that reward external recognitions of connection are pulling us apart more than ever,” says Zoe Chen, strategy director at Virtue APAC. “However, there is an opportunity for brands to set the stage for the beauty of the serendipitous, chance encounters and unexpected connections in a world where you can easily connect with anyone and everyone if you should choose to.”
An opportunity for brands to drive new ways for people to find more meaningful connection?
With our world no longer built to facilitate face-to-face interactions, businesses are stepping in to fill the void with new social spaces, community concepts, and apps for intentional companionship.
One of those is Bloom Community, a social app that helps people meet organically through shared events.
“Bloom Community arose during the pandemic when I missed meeting new people at community events,” says Luna Ray, CEO and founder of Bloom Community. “When I tried to meet people through dating apps, I experienced dehumanising swiping and ghosting. I felt that meeting people through friends-of-friends at community gatherings was a better experience.”
Ray believes that we’re in the early days of a wave of social apps that evolve beyond social media towards facilitating deeper, more authentic connection.
“I think that ultimately what people want is connection with others,” adds Ray. “When companies can support our natural desire to do that, I think they’ll be in better alignment with the needs of their customers. Some brands have a community built around them, and facilitating meetups for those communities is both beneficial for the people who love their products and for the company.”
Meanwhile, in the past few years, across Asia, ‘companionship for hire’ services have mushroomed. From shadow buddies in Singapore, to listening friends in Japan, dating surrogates in India, and butler cafes in China.
“While these rental services tackle loneliness by providing real in-person interactions, they are essentially band-aid solutions and don’t allow for true authentic relationships that many people crave,” says TBWA’s Jin Wong.
This is where a new wave of platonic connection apps come into play. Platforms like Umity are trying to bring back an element of spontaneity, enabling users to create or browse social experiences around them, even arrange for a meetup in as little as five minutes. Events range from group activities to one-to-one meet ups, making it easier for people to socialise around common interests, be it a game of tennis, a walk in the park, or a pint at the local bar.
And in Hong Kong, where 65% of people eat out four or more times a week, FoodMatesss is an app for those who dread eating alone. Users simply set their favourite cuisines/ dishes and their match parameters including age group and gender, and the app randomly matches them with lunch or dinner buddies.
Why it’s a good time for brands to find more immersive ways to connect people
“There’s an opportunity for brands to facilitate richer interactions around their products and help create more meaningful connections,” says Wong.
Wong cites a recent example in Lego Lates, where the toy brand created a series of adult-only events in stores across Shanghai to London, inviting people to play, interact with famous creative personalities, and make new friends – all while putting their product at the centre of the experience and recontextualising its role for older age groups to enjoy.
“Beyond experiences, different formats can also spark opportunities as people are craving more unique, intentional, and authentic ways to connect,” adds Wong.
In general, there is a shift occurring where instead of seeking multiple trivial public connections, people are favouring selected private relationships based on mutual interests.
“Frustrated with dating platforms like Tinder that do not create an environment for true connection, a new generation of singles are using apps like Snack, a TikTok-style dating app where a match can only happen when two people like each other’s videos, instead of mindless swipes,” says Virtue APAC’s Zoe Chen. “Snack believes videos allows users to better showcase their personality in ways static photos cannot, and enables people to match through mutual interests and lifestyle.”
The importance of connecting through common interests is further evidenced in the increasing preference for niche community platforms like Reddit and Discord, over mass public platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or the popularity of Spotify’s Blend feature that generates and blends playlists based on you and your friends’ music preferences.
“Brands should devote as much effort to smaller interest-based initiatives dedicated to particular communities, as they do to high-profile mass activations,” adds Chen.
Chen gives the examples of Coca-Cola who launched Creations last year, a platform that taps into specific cultural passion points of Gen Z such as music, gaming and anime.
“Through the use of limited edition product innovations, Creations trigger and inspire young people to rediscover the classic taste of Coca-Cola®, making one of the most accessible and democratic brands on the planet something young people will queue around the block to get, with the limited edition cans re-selling for up to 10x the original price,” says Chen.
Luna Ray, CEO and founder of Bloom Community, says that it’s about inventing the future of how humans will gather and connect.
“When people reach for their phones and open up social, they’re craving social connection and the dopamine that comes from that,” says Ray. “But, we now know that the ‘positive vibes’ from social media are shorter lived and not nearly as fulfilling as in-person connection – there simply is no replacement.”
Brands who help people find authentic, deeper connections, look set to be the winners in the new quest for meaningful connection.
“Some brands have a community built around them, and facilitating meetups for those communities is both beneficial for the people who love their products and for the company,” says Ray. “Yelp did this in its early days with dinners for the Yelp Elite. Sneaker companies do this with meetups and launch events. Bloom Community does this as part of our DNA, since our product is built to connect people in real life at events.”