Relationship Proxies

Humans are social animals. We seek relationships and we invest them with enduring meaning. We need to be alert to those who exploit this social urge and watch out for relationship proxies that drain us.

Wistfully, I play my lute
Long and deep into the night,
For my heart is shy
Of the empty chamber.

Wang Wei, Lonely (tr. Moon Kwan)
Photo by Tara Winstead on

Lonely in a Crowd

We are surrounded by more ways to connect to others than ever. These means of connection have been our saviour in a pandemic, enabling us to work, to stay in touch with family and to connect with friends. At the same time, we can be left feeling isolated and alone.

In 2018, well before the current epidemic, the Australian Psychological Society issued a report on Loneliness for Psychology Week that called out that one in four Australian adults are lonely. Our rich array of options for connection might enable us to be in touch, but they don’t always meet our needs for human connection

Many of us will have experienced the sensation of feeling alone in a large crowd. The presence of or ability to engage other people isn’t the issue. The challenge is that we want to be specifically recognised, engaged for who we are and have our needs met in relationships. This can go wrong in the most intimate relationships, as divorce trends indicate, but is particularly true in our work relationships. At work, relationships can be transactional and formulaic, driven by roles, status, and not the individual. As we grapple more and more with distributed teams, we need to recognise the effort to recognise the individual and help build relationships that matter for each employee.

Relationship Proxies

Our desire for relationships and this growing sense of loneliness can be a source of manipulation. Beware the stranger offering a relationship. Many scams and hacks rely on people’s desire to engage in relationships, to invest them with meaning, and to trust others who offer the satisfaction of relationships. Extremist movements engage people at a relationship level offering comradeship, meaning and a sense of belonging to lure people to work for their cause. Social media and the profusion of communities on offer magnify the reach and the intensity of these manipulations.

When the reward of sweet foods was rare our bodies desired it. Now refined sugar is a commodity and added to every food and drink to tap into that human desire and push sales. We see the same issues with social media, offering human relationship proxies to drive engagement and push advertising. Follower counts, connections, likes and comments can feel like a relationship. So too can the rush of personalisation available in our ever data hungry world of marketing, emails, apps and websites. However, like a sugar rush, it is but a proxy for the sustenance for human connection. Worse still, the crash after these substitutes deepens the sense of isolation and loneliness, often deliberately so, with the end of driving yet more engagement.

A relationship proxy delivers a taste of human connection, but isn’t specific to you, your needs or your challenges. Real relationships take work. Relationship proxies aren’t that demanding, because they aren’t that concerned about you. Relationship proxies are playing a numbers game of conversion and hoping that their offers of relationship will convert just enough people to sustain sales. We should recognise that AI and automation are already accelerating the ability to create, improve the effectiveness of, and scale relationship proxies.

To end the loneliness epidemic, we need to head in a different direction. A proxy will not deliver the warmth and comfort of a human hug, however cleverly designed. We need to invest in the work of real relationships – relationships that aren’t driven by self-interest and are deeply specific to the other person. Whether at work, in communities or in the wider world these are the relationships that we need to build, to foster and to share. That’s the path to a more rewarding future with less loneliness.

For it is his to fill your need but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Kahlil Gibran, On Friendship

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