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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Idle Chatter and Cheap Identification
July 12, 2010

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

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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