All the Lonely People
April 24, 2012

There’s a whole subgenre of pop sociology and social psychology dedicated to enumerating all of the causes and consequences of the modern American’s crushing loneliness. The latest entry is Steve Marche’s Atlantic article blaming Facebook and other social networking sites for isolating us all from one other, replacing meaningful interaction with pokes and Farmville.*

Sociologist Claude S. Fischer begs to differ. He writes:

Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation.

Fischer, being a sociologist with a plethora of empirical research to back him up, seems to have the upper hand here. But if he’s right, then what explains the peculiarly modern anxiety about loneliness? What are we actually anxious about? Will Wilkinson has a theory:

The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.

“Increasing awareness of a problem” is one way of looking at it. A related (and not entirely mutually exclusive) possibility is that we’re seeing something that’s always been true, and, for the first time, turning it into a problem to be solved. Facebook may not make us lonelier, but it certainly promises to salve the loneliness we already carry around with us. Same with other social networking platforms. If we have the theoretical ability to remain in perpetual play and discourse with our friends and loved ones, then what right do we have to be lonely?

Maybe we’re looking at the whole problem backwards. Maybe loneliness isn’t inherently a defect to be fixed by more social interaction. In fact, social interaction can sometimes exacerbate it — even face-to-face meatspace social interaction. In those cases, introspection and solitude can be a balm. A controlled exploration of loneliness may be more healthy, long-term, than resorting to social distraction. You might not be able to construct a permanent bulwark against loneliness, but when it rushes past your defenses you can at least acknowledge it as an old and familiar acquaintance.

This doesn’t sound crazy or counter-intuitive to me. In fact, it sounds pretty obvious. But this whole discussion seems to be predicated on the popular assumption that loneliness is always an enemy from whom you should flee. That assumption, I would argue, is the true epidemic.

*My words, not his. But as far as I can tell, poking and Farmville are both over now.

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The Social Network
October 3, 2010

Caught it over the weekend, and thought it was fantastic. To state the obvious: this is a drama, not a work of journalism or a documentary. It’s meant to entertain and move you. To the extent that it teaches you anything, I don’t think it teaches you much about the specifics of Facebook’s creation, or the ensuing lawsuits. But it makes you feel something, and it keeps you hypnotized for a good two hours. In fact, when it was done, I found myself wishing I could stay in that world for another two hours. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

I’d write more, but David Denby has already said pretty much everything that needs to be said.

The Personal Cost of Oversharing
July 15, 2010

neurotics not-so-anonymous
Image by Malingering via Flickr

My last post on oversharing was a little muddled, because I didn’t clearly distinguish between the two separate arguments I was making. My broader concern in writing that post was oversharing as a societal issue: basically, my feeling is that every soapbox comes attached to certain ethical propositions, and there is something ethically dubious about using a soapbox solely to emote and promote the self, with no thought to the interests of the readers or others.

But I ended up talking more about overshare as a personal concern, and so I think I need to clarify why it would seem to be equally problematic for the individual. For that, I think we need to clarify what, exactly, oversharing is.

First off, it’s significantly different from straight-up memoir, or autobiography. Work in that genre, at least when done well, is written with the benefit of perspective, and with the interests of others in mind. Oversharing is done in the moment, and is done either to draw attention, solicit sympathy, or simply to vent.

Of course, even the most private individuals have interactions where they seek those ends. It’s just that, in most cases, we seek attention and sympathy from our friends, families, and loved ones. When, in exchange for our self-expression, we need further guidance, we’ll seek out someone like a therapist, or a clergy member.

This venting and emoting can betray deep, potentially malignant growths in our consciousness, and it’s important to reveal those growths to someone you trust to help you deal with them in a healthy way.

I’m going to illustrate my point with a personal anecdote. Go ahead: Savor the irony.

Less than a year ago, I went into therapy in order to address self-loathing and social anxiety issues that were rendering me almost wholly dysfunctional in certain situations. The first few weeks of those sessions, I was pretty much the only one to do the talking, and all I did was obsess about the trivia that was making me so unhappy. But eventually my therapist started challenging the premises on which those obsessions were founded. At first, it irritated me that she was challenging my assumptions, but that was only because I knew deep down how ridiculous and indefensible they were. Once I was forced to acknowledge that to myself, I became a much healthier, happier person.

More importantly, therapy helped me develop the tools to deal with other concerns in the same way: with rigorous skepticism and self-scrutiny. That wasn’t an easy thing to come to, and it’s something I maintain imperfectly at best. Doing so requires focus and solitude.

But I still feel the need to vent, as does everyone. And when I do, the best person to vent to is someone who is wise enough, and knows enough about me, to not reaffirm those assumptions and justify my odd neurotic tics and obsessions. In other words, I need someone who isn’t an enabler.

My concern is that when it comes to oversharing, the Internet can often serve as one giant enabler. If we garner an audience because of our willingness to share our neurotic self-obsession (and as a neurotic myself, I reluctantly concede that in our fits of anxiety we are, practically by definition, self-obsessed), this validates it. Which is probably the worst thing you can do for a neurotic.

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Idle Chatter and Cheap Identification
July 12, 2010

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
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So at the end of yesterday’s post, I was going to explain why I think that a lot of new media tools—Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and, of course, Tumblr—are the latest, weirdest, and in some ways most seductive form of what Kierkegaard called idle chatter.

While the problem is by no means limited to the New York City new media scene, I’m going to focus there for the purposes of this post because I’d wager it’s pretty resonant to a lot of my readers. And even for those who aren’t embedded in that ecosphere, it’s pretty instructive.

The problem is that all these social media tools offer something I like to call cheap identification as a convincing substitute for the sort of deep soul-searching that Kierkegaard considered our mind’s real nourishment. Think of it this way: Cheap identification is to introspection as cotton candy is to real food. It’s sweet and delicious, but it won’t assuage your hunger. If you try to use it for those ends, you’ll end up just feeling kind of ill.

Cheap identification works like this: Subject A feels sad. Subject A posts something about feeling sad on the social media venue of his choice. Subject B, who is also sad, reads Subject A’s post about how Subject A feels sad and thinks, “Wow! Subject A’s problems are just like my problems!”

Superficially, it feels like a meaningful exchange of some kind has taken place. Subject B feels a little less lonely, and might even reciprocate by leaving a supportive comment that will, in turn, make Subject A feel less lonely as well. More to the point, if Subject A is in New York and even loosely plugged into the various new media goings-on there, then this is a savvy career movie. After all, exposing your personal pain to the world is how Emily Gould snagged herself a book deal. People—especially relatively well-off, also plugged-in, educated cool kids like yourself—eat this stuff up.

And so there’s pressure not just to produce autobiographical navel-gazing, but to produce it consistently. And pretty soon there’s a big surplus of all these sad young literary people talking about their problems with each other and identifying over it.

The problem—and this is why I hasten to call it cheap identification—is that at some point you have to ask yourself: To what end? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writers using themselves as subjects. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “oversharing.” But self-expression or identification without insight is hollow, even when the direct, personal level on which it is performed disguises that fact. It’s not a way of confronting  and surmounting despair, but of anesthetizing it through these self-indulgent rituals.

Everyone needs a little sugar to some extent. But when identification becomes its own end, it’s just a form of mutual, narcissistic self-confirmation. Subject A writes about Subject A’s problems because that’s what Subject A is monomaniacally obsessed with, to the point where there’s no broader, universal point. Subject B continues to eagerly identify with Subject A because it validates Subject B’s own deeply ingrained self-interest.

That’s my objection to Emily Gould, to the vast proliferation of more or less redundant memoirs in American publishing, and to stuff like the Awl’s Diary of an Unemployed Class of ‘10 Philosophy Major. With regards to the latter, this is a guy who spent four years studying philosophy, and he seems to think the most interesting thing he has to offer us are glum, shallow bon mots about what it feels like to not do a whole lot. It’s a horrible waste of a soapbox.

If I’ve mostly shied away from revealing any details about my past or personal life, that’s why. I’m talking about a really easy trap for anyone to fall into, and nobody can be blamed for it. Hell, I’m not even exempting myself from this sort of behavior, not by a long shot.

But it’s choking the life out of us as a group. It’s numbing us, and it’s hobbling our ability to confront what are very real problems in a responsible, meaningful way. We’re too distracted, and we’re too busy staring in the mirror.

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Emoting Versus Insight Online
July 11, 2010

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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.

Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:

He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?

 Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.

Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.

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