More Connected and Never Lonelier?

“We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. In 2010, at a cost of $300 million, 800 miles of fiber-optic cable was laid between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to shave three milliseconds off trading times. Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

“…What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.”

• Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

25 thoughts on “More Connected and Never Lonelier?

  1. I canceled my Facebook and Myspace accounts last year because I found that the kind of “connection” that it provided was really so shallow. People felt they had corresponded because they put a status update or a comment on someone’s picture. Instead, I wrote all my Facebook friends and asked them for their mailing and/or email address. Since then, I have made an effort to keep in touch with them through longer, more fleshed-out letters. I may only write them three or four times a year, but the correspondence we have is much deeper than we ever had on Facebook.

    Recently I’ve been experimenting with “fasting” from technology. I work on computers all day long, and most of the things I enjoy – writing novels, playing video games, listening to music – all require electronics. (Okay, listening to music technically doesn’t require a device with a screen, but all I have is a computer and an MP3 player, so it counts.) It really does clutter up my head, and so on days when I don’t have to work I sometimes will set out to avoid any electronics for an entire day. Go for a walk. Write some of the aforementioned letters. Listen to silence. My various commitments don’t allow me to do it very often, but I find it refreshing and liberating.


  2. You mean you DON’T have a Kindle, or an IPad, or the latest gadget to make you one of the cool kids? WHAT is wrong with you?!


  3. Over this last year I have commited acts of rebellion and sedition. I cancelled my cable subscription, destroyed my cell phone (kept my land-line), and no longer pine for the latest toys from Apple & Verizon.

    I have become a regular at my local library and have found buried treasure in the back shelves and alcoves. It’s almost like panning for gold in Kamchatka.

    Some would say that I have become as one of the rueful greys in the city of Lud, but I think not, as I have heard tell of younger folks who share the same disillusionment.


  4. Where I grew up, in France, there are two words for friend. One is “copain” (feminine “copine”) and is used more often by kids & teens than adults, and basically means “someone I like to hang out with.” When a bunch of kids play together, it’s “les copains.” A twenty-something guy might go down to the bar to meet “les copains” and have a good time. But at thirty he’s probably lost touch with most of these people, too busy with work and family.

    The other word for friend is “ami” (feminine “amie”). It really means friend. It’s someone you stick with–when you go to meet “les copains” you show up together, and you talk real talk about your lives on the way. This is a person you trust and tell your secrets to. I had one French “amie” tell me she believed a person could only really have about five “amis” in their lifetime. The word isn’t taken lightly; if you use it, people understand you mean something real.

    When I came to the U.S. for college I experienced some culture shock. I was American and had thought I understood American culture, but the notions of friendship here seemed, to be honest, just plain wonky. Like a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts. It was considered really important to have friends. It was best to have lots of friends. It wasn’t clear, though, what friend really meant, because you heard people say they were someone’s friend as a way of saying they didn’t dislike the person, that they were OK with them. On the other hand there was such a thing as a “best friend” and that made me nervous. How did you choose? What if the person you chose didn’t choose you? Could you really only have one “amie”? (I finally settled on the French way after all. I don’t have a best friend. I have four or five “amies.” I use the phrase “one of my best friends” when describing them.)

    But the American-culture pressure to have “lots of friends”, I found overwhelming. I actually think I’m a mild extrovert, but really! Who can keep track of fifty people’s lives? Who can remember two hundred people’s names, and instantly? You constantly hear Americans apologizing for being “terrible with names” or the like; they don’t seem to understand that it’s the expectation itself that is unreasonable. I really wish people in this country would decide to *not* feel guilty when they can’t remember an acquaintance’s name, and to *not* feel guilty when they’re unable to remain “connected” to all the myriads of people they feel they ought to. And to *not* feel guilty about *choosing*. We commit to some people and not others. That is life. We’re human, we’re limited, and it’s ridiculous to feel guilty for not spreading yourself too thin. Do people feel guilty that they’re only able to marry one person? No! /rant

    Sorry. That was long. All that is to say this: when I first discovered Facebook, I felt overwhelmed in precisely the same way as I’m talking about above. I got “friended” by people I couldn’t even remember. I got poked, I got invited to games, I could feel all these expectations coming down on me, dozens of people I was now expected to pay attention to. “Oh, we met each other once and had a positive interaction, so now let’s let each other know how we are doing forever!” Honestly! How do people DO it?

    I quit Facebook. I’ve never once regretted it.

    I realize the reason I quit (feeling overwhelmed by demands for attention) sounds selfish. And in a way it was. But I’d argue that it leaves me the mental time and space to give true attention to the people I have real relationships with, relationships that are real to the point where they need me. That guy I had a great talk with one time when passing through his church doesn’t need me. But there are a few people who do. I do have a choice of how to use the time and attention I’ve saved by not giving it to “copains” or “friendly acquaintances”, and I don’t always use it well. But having it available for my true friends is, I think, important.

    I have a question, though, if anybody cares to weigh in. I hear so much about people being addicted to Facebook. Which has to imply people get validation from it, probably attention, praise, etc. (I mean, I’m familiar with the addiction cycle in my own life: you get something that makes you feel good briefly so then you go in pursuit of more, and more…) Am I the only one out there who experienced Facebook as a demand that I give attention, rather than as a place to receive attention? Or did anyone else have my experience too?


  5. Many of these comments discuss Facebook (and similar social networking setups) as if it were a neutral form of communication. From a monetization angle, it’s actually quite different from a phone, texting, a non-free email service, or a minimalist instant messenger program.

    While it’s true that we face a magnified form of the flaws of human nature on a service like Facebook, we also face the results of how they make money from providing that service. Their business motive is to encourage you to view as many ads as possible. A phone service wants you to keep paying them every month, and thus competes based on quality of service in their price range, so they have no motivation to seriously change how you use their service to talk to people. So big, integrated social sites like Facebook have made a science of distraction and making it’s users feel like they have to check it constantly. It’s like the emotional difference between a non fiction book on a subject, or an article in the newspaper. Both can inform me about corrupt lamp manufacturers, but whereas the book wants to leave me thinking about them, the newspaper has already dragged me to pay B7 so I’ll see their ad on that page too, and hopefully see another page split article to get me to the ad on B12.

    This makes a practical difference. If I am called on the phone about a sudden illness Aunt Betty has suffered, after I hang up the phone, that has time to sink in. As I sit in my quiet apartment, I can really feel the grief of that, worry about her, and maybe even realise something about my ability to help. I might not choose to grapple with it, but absent any distraction, that’s a real choice I make. If I read a social networking post, tweet, whatnot, I have a momentary moment of grief and empathy, but I’m immediately prodded to look at something else. To grapple with the news emotionally, to let it sink in, I now have to actively resist the temptation to read the next post on my list, maybe even turn the monitor off. I can ignore Aunt Betty’s plight just as easily in either situation, but it is much easier not to ignore it via a focused communication route that isn’t actively trying to get my next page click.


  6. I do agree that the social networks promote more narcissism than the earlier forms of remote communication. I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook over the fact that to heavily participate, one generally generates a lot of content in the form of status messages about one’s self. I love reading people’s status messages; I can’t stand games (too time consuming/pointless); I don’t really like posting my own status messages. So I’m more like an internet stalker of my friends than I am a contributor. I just can’t think of much about myself that I want to announce publically to 100 people at the same time. It’s not that I’m not social (introvert though I am): I just don’t think much that I do is all that newsworthy.

    Even with message boards and blogs, to a certain extent one has to work hard to generate content and develop a persona in order to interact through these channels.

    The most interesting facet, to me, in FB/social networks is that the name of the game really is about posting upbeat things (or at least interesting things) about one’s self and about liking/agreeing with things. You can’t “dislike” things…at least not unless one intends to argue with people in front a very large crowd (ugh) and do so in tiny little text boxes (double ugh). This strikes me as curious and I wonder if it actually has shifted socialization a bit more toward “finding people who I agree with” and “defining myself by what I like”. I suppose I’ve always been a bit stodgy, but I feel like Generation X may have been more cynical and non-conformist than this. (Not that cynacism is a virtue…)

    That said … I’m still not convinced that the problems inherent in internet communication represent a big step back. The issue of people putting forward a good public face hardly started with the internet. Neither did forming cliques and ignoring or denigrating people with whom one has little common. This happens at dinner parties and in high school classes and churches even within small communities, where people are supposedly forced to get along with each other. It’s also not clear that the neighborhood bbq remedies these issues: first, is the whole neighborhood really there? Probably a subsection shows up, with are comfortable with one another. Second, America’s political and cultural wars are fought not so much between immediate neighbors or across pews as between entire geographical areas. The older, pre-internet media certainly hasn’t done much to built interpersonal bridges, except maybe by providing some common cultural referents (Elvis; the Simpsons). So, the internet is merely amplifying some negative things that were already happening to it. But it provides some novel opportunity as well — the outcast from the bbq party can actually jump online and figure out where the other gamers, or homosexuals, single people, or chess players are gathering. And it may be that people can talk online who otherwise have no other reason (geographically) to relate. So there’s some latent promise there, I think.


  7. Sorry…NOT Michelle Duggar!

    Only two of them, both about to turn thirty-years old, you literalist, you!



  8. That’s a very good point. All sound human relationships develop in complexity and richness as they grow. So often we deny that chance with God by keeping things one dimensional and not allowing for the possibility that God is speaking to us in a deeper, more symbolic, more humorous, more personal, less personal, etc., etc., way. We give Him an assigned voice. Of course not everything is Him either so that’s where discernment comes in.


  9. “There are many Amish and Mennonite in my area – they have the family part right. ”

    Exactly. And they have a connection with the land and environment that can cushion hard economic times.


  10. I’m reminded of an epitaph for Baby Boomers I came up with years ago:

    “So busy trying to Find Themselves they never had the time to HAVE a Self to Find.”


  11. Michael – that’s exactly what I thought when I first read it! That double take nearly put a crick in my neck…


  12. This is nothing new. Facebook is just the latest in the long line attempts to cure this lonliness which has always existed. Everything has been tried, and I’m sure new things will be created and tried out as well. None of it will work.

    It is a delusion to think this loneliness will be “cured” by anything, whether it be righteous friendships, biblical marriages, the “right” church or a better “relationship” with god; or any church; or god at all. It is my conclusion that even those who claim to have defeated their lonliness–be it by the gospel, church or or Jesus-shaped spirituality, or whatever–are fooling themselves, simply because the alternative is just too difficult to deal with. It’s a way to make it possible to get up in the morning and carry on. Facebook is no different than the liturgical confession and absolution. “We’re in this together.”

    It still doesn’t solve anything.

    Jesus said that “wherever two or three are gathered together…” Again, it’s my opinion that this has little to nothing to do with church or any sort of spiritual “gathering”. Rather, it has everything to do with if two or three people can put themselves aside–i.e. love–enough to spend time with one another, only then can the dark lonliness begin to recede. To push back against the curse, so to speak.

    Two drunks at the bar = two parishioners at the rail.

    The common thread is “you are not alone”. We can moralize all we want about how terrible social networking, or drug abuse, or illicit sex, or materialism, or being a Republican, and participating in all sorts of “sin” is to our lives. The truth is that all of it is a response to the deep lonliness that pervades all of us from the time we are born until the moment we die (and beyond, probably).

    There is no cure and no one really wants to admit it.


  13. I was just reading this article the other day. I was writing about the selfishness of social media and I was struck by that last line in the article; it has been harder to not think of ourselves these days when all that we are apart of tells us to promote ourselves at every turn; even if it is just telling people, “I am at Starbucks”.


  14. It’s the narcissistic approach of social networking that is the problem. It now starts with what I’m doing, and then “friends” like or comment on that activity if they find it interesting to them. Communication used to start out with “How are YOU?” and “What have YOU been up to?” Rather than simply latching on to parts of the answers to those questions which match what we are like or are doing, we used to be taught empathy, to ask more questions to learn more, to show genuine interest in the other person, rather than turning their interests into a conversation about me (enough about you; let’s talk about me).

    There is a lot of wisdom in Jesus’ exhortation to die to oneself, to become the greatest by becoming the least.

    Social networking was intended to help people make vital connections, to share job-hunting tips, to find lost acquaintances, but it also reverts us back into tribalism, where we associate only with like-minded people. Perhaps this trend could also help explain why we have become even a more polarized nation than ever before: we simply no longer have to learn to communicate with those we dislike or with whom we disagree, to “love your enemy as yourself”, if you will. If there is such a thing as societal evolution, this is a dangerous step backward.


  15. I do have a facebook account but no one knows it. I am anonymous and have it only to keep an eye on my kids. I prefer in person interaction and then p[hone. I am a techie engineer yet I use IM only for work and find it and facebook a huge ditraction for getting things done.

    I even limit myself to this blog only. I find in this medium that people can become what they want. I tend to be authentic and the only reason I do not use my real name here is because I don’t want future employers knowing my points of view if they start searching (no my name isn’t really Radagast but I played one in a book…)

    Idon’t have a lot of contact with extended family but I have a big family and I am connected with the community – definitely not an intravert type.


  16. Perhaps the problem includes the fact that many of “us” have never learned how to really connect with an intimate and loving God?

    How can we connect to God/Jesus if we only know Him as the either the great Rewarder, or the Great Punisher rather than the one who wanted a relationship with us so much that He became flesh to live , be with us, suffer as we suffer, know our joys?


  17. I joined FB to keep up with my almost-thirty kids and see pictures of them and their lives, including grandkids in the case of son #1. (Son #2, the leading edge technolphile, has since moved on to something called GOOGLE +)

    I also have some on-line only nursing friends which whom I share those ideas and issues, but it is a solid group not unlike I-Monk, with a much more plebian purpose.

    I cannot help but state the obvious, in that most of us “of a certain age”, to whom long-distance PHONE calls were once a huge deal, tend not to be addicted to FB and other media, simply because we are past that stage of life (I DO, however, remember HOURS on the phone with my girlfriends disecting the day when we had just spent 8 hours together in high school! Similar idea…)

    So, IMHO, things like FB and texting are a sign of our broken and isolated families, not the cause, and that much of that behavior is outgrown, at least if my own kids are any indication! For reall connection, I go to church and spend time with my dearest spouse…..and as an introvert, other than my sons and their families who I don’t see enough of, that is plenty of folks on my plate!


  18. Facebook isn’t making us lonely – money is. I would have almost no connection with some family members if it weren’t for FB. I would not see children growing like weeds if it weren’t for FB. The fact that we are separated as family becomes more wrenching to me as I get older. Growing up I lived within blocks of grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. We have been separated by job lay offs and the necessity to leave home to look for work. We are a mobile society and are caught in the trap of the American lifestyle and all that is “necessary” to maintain it. I live in a small town and am amazed at the number of retirement and assisted living facilities in this small area. And they are growing by the day it seems. So we put our elderly family in these facilities with a sigh of relief so that we can keep our insane lifestyles. I am one of 3 siblings. Two of us live alone. There are many Amish and Mennonite in my area – they have the family part right. Stay together and take care of one another. Don’t blame FB for our messed up priorities and choices.


  19. I’m an introvert and agoraphobic. If I could go out into the boonies and disappear I’d do it in a heartbeat. Don’t need no churches either.


  20. I am generally very skeptical about disembodied internet relationships. I’m sure there are some healthy ones (like Danielle’s, for example), but my sense is, you really never know to whom you’re talking. 25 year old “Lucy in Los Angeles” could really be 48 year old Elmer of Des Moines. Internet relationships, I fear, are too often images talking to each other, not real people. Not always, certainly, but often enough, I think.

    For example, how on earth do you know that I’m really Randy Thompson in New Hampshire? For all you know, I could be Norma Desmond of Beverly Hills. (With a tip of the hat to Billy Wilder, and to all classic film buffs who love “Sunset Boulevard” like I do.)


  21. I don’t think Facebook or its cousins have really promoted casual “connection” at the expense of close “bonds,” as some argue. People have always cultivated lots of fairly shallow connections, with few bonds. This is what you see at any large party. Facebook just provides a way to virtually network with people on a fairly casual basis. Whether one takes connections further is up the individual.

    Moreover, I doubt that loneliness is a problem springing from casual net communications. It is more that general social patterns during the last century have, on the whole, left people more alone. Although actually, people have been noting this trend every since country boys and girls have been moving to cities. Anywhere that isn’t a small community makes you anonymous and potentially disconnected. Technology can help heal that, or it can just be one more diversion.

    I find it astounding and exciting that recent revolutions in communication allows people to share ideas and form communities without any regard to geography. Obviously this shouldn’t replace local connections … but it provides great opportunity. When has it been possible for a housewife in Norway, a clerk in Wyoming, and a writer in London to hold a conversation in almost real time? They might all just waste a bunch of time, but there’s some great opportunity there, too.

    And virtual connections can become bonds. I met my husband online, when I lived in Indiana and he lived in Montana. We dated, virtually, for months before meeting. Eventually, he drove to Indiana, we got married, and it’s now almost 8 years later. So my assessment of the social impact of technology is mostly positive.


  22. Very interesting article.

    When I’m apart from my true friends for very long, I always start to feel lonely. When I’m not able to go to church for instance, I not only miss worship, but the true intimacy of being with people I love, have a bond with, and who care for me.

    I read another article about Facebook recently talking about research showing a connection with the number of “friends” on Facebook and narcissism and anti-social behavior. The author of the study claims “that grandiose exhibitionism correlated with anti-social behavior on Facebook. Self-esteem was negatively related to self-promotion and anti-social behaviors on the site.” (Western Illinois University professor Christopher Carpenter.)

    I use Facebook to stay in touch with some family members and other real friends, and to also post photos occassionaly. But I have also personally observed some bigtime gradiosity and fights.


  23. As an introvert this does not seem all so terrible at first, but even us introverts needs some interaction and strong relationships.


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