The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

In the May issue, Stephen Marche reported that despite all the connectivity of the social-media age, people have never been lonelier.

What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are.

The fact that Americans are neither more lonely nor more detached than ever makes it difficult for Marche to prove that Facebook is responsible for turning us into a nation of lonesome narcissists. But this thesis wouldn’t hold up even if rates of loneliness and isolation had reached unprecedented levels. As [John] Cacioppo and the other experts Marche interviews tell him, people who feel lonely in their lives offline are likely to bring that loneliness to Facebook, whereas those who feel more connected are not …

Marche concedes that “loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us.” He accepts the psychologists’ insight: “We are doing it to ourselves.” For a moment, at least, Marche appears to answer his article’s inflammatory question—“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”—with a definitive no.

But instead Marche concludes by arguing that Facebook is in fact doing something far more harmful … Facebook, he claims, has produced a “new isolation,” one that demands constant attention to the Internet and precludes any genuine retreat from the world. Facebook, he charges, “denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.”

I think we still have that option. Disconnection requires little more than shutting down your computer and smartphone. But if the connection is still on and Marche wants to forget about himself for a while, he could simply click away from Facebook and navigate over to Google, which will direct him to the research on loneliness and solitude that has been there for him all along. Used wisely, the Internet could help make his sociological arguments less isolated from reality.

Eric Klinenberg
Excerpt from a Slate article

I could have gone out with some friends, but instead I stayed in and read an article about whether social media makes us antisocial.

KZsays comment

Is Facebook making us lonely? In a word, no.

It’s clear that something is driving up levels of self-reported loneliness in America and elsewhere. That it’s not Facebook, or the broader phenomenon of social networking, is apparent from what I consider to be Marche’s unintentional nut graf:

“The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

“By 2004”—in other words, by the year that Facebook launched. A little hard to blame it for anything that happened before then.

In fact, suggestive headline aside, Marche doesn’t really accuse Facebook of making its users lonelier. Indeed, it would be hard to, given the considerable body of evidence to the contrary, such as [a] Pew study, which found that Facebook users have more friends and enjoy more social support than non-users.

His argument is subtler: that Facebook causes us to withdraw into ourselves and makes some people feel worse about their lives by exposing them to evidence of others’ happiness. Even there, though, he falls down pretty hard in places, as here:

“The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine.”

You can make a lot of valid [claims] about social media, but that it spares us from “embarrassing reality” and “accidental revelations” isn’t one of them. Has he never heard of Anthony Weiner? …

There are plenty of reasons people feel lonelier than they used to, and technology undoubtedly has a lot to do with it. Just not Facebook.

Jeff Bercovici
Excerpt from a blog post

Facebook is to real emotional connection what light is to fire, but it illuminates nonetheless.

Farcaster comment

The cover story features as the central piece of evidence a study finding that in a 1985 survey, 10 percent of Americans reported having no one with whom to discuss important matters, but in a 2004 repeat, 25 percent of Americans did. Marche should have known that this claim has been walked back considerably by the researchers. In 2009, in response to a critique, they reported that new statistical modeling suggests that the correct estimates could be as low as 6 percent in 1985 and 10 percent in 2004. A recent experiment run by the General Social Survey revealed that the 2004 finding differed from the 1985 one because the survey procedures differed. And this year, one of the study’s authors, referring to the original finding, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I certainly don’t think it’s reliable.”

This report of a jump in isolation has spread wide and far because it is so dramatic; it is also wrong.

Claude S. Fischer
Professor of Sociology
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

Stephen Marche’s cover story for The Atlantic on misery and Facebook is a great if not particularly uplifting read (share it on Facebook!), although envisioning how the vampire-Jetsons photo shoot went down takes some of the edge off. (“Like this?” “Can you be … emptier?”) The good news, though, is that the answer is and always has been “simple”: “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are. The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are,” [according to Cacioppo]. But also, [Marche says]: “The more you try to be happy, the less happy you are.” And then: “Now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are.” So … drinks?

Edith Zimmerman
Excerpt from a Hairpin blog post

Marche seems persuaded that social networking, text messaging, or various other forms of online connection are replacing real communication between people. At least in my experience … this isn’t at all what’s happening.

If anything, online connections tend to spark or promote real-world connections. I have met dozens, possibly even hundreds, of people I wouldn’t know except for Twitter, had spontaneous coffee meetings thanks to Foursquare check-ins, and made countless other connections between the online and offline world. Does everyone do this? Of course not. I’m sure there are people who become more alone or more lonely as they use the Internet, just as there are lonely people who watch a lot of late-night television. That doesn’t mean television causes loneliness.

Mathew Ingram
Excerpt from a Businessweek blog post

This article touched me deeply. It perfectly described my life: I spend a lot of time on Facebook but have essentially zero in-person friends (I’m 50, female, gregarious), and it’s depressing the heck out of me. After I finished the article, I posted the link on FB and told all of my “friends” I wouldn’t be back online for a while. I’d prefer that they call. No phone conversations yet, but I’m taking a long look at how I can raise my social capital. I don’t think I’m neurotic, just lonely. I need to figure out how I’ve let my personal life become almost solely defined as an online activity.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In