Loneliness in Numbers

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Twitter - Cameron Spencer.jpgAs we look back on the first 10 years of the new millennium, the ubiquity of the Internet and the growth of all its social networking possibilities, from email to Blackberries, iPhones and Facebook, is surely one of the most significant changes to emerge from the decade. Granted, the changes began a decade before that. But the past 10 years has seen a phenomenal boom in the growth of Internet access and usage ... up 1600% in the Middle East, 1300% in Africa, and more than 300% worldwide, so that Internet users now number more than half the total population of the world, according to Internet World Stats. 


We can now easily connect with friends on different continents without waiting two weeks for a letter, talk via computer without the expense of international long distance, and share new baby or other photos with hundreds of friends and relatives in a single posting, via personal Web sites and Facebook pages. My next-door neighbors, who are from Turino, Italy and just had a baby, even hooked up webcams around the house so the distant grandparents could watch live videos of their new grandson playing, feeding, and sleeping from half a world away. With chat rooms, email, Skype, Facebook, and the worldwide Web community, the possibility of being isolated or without someone to "talk" to is far more remote. 

But are there hidden costs to all this connectedness? Is it possible that for some, there is loneliness, not safety, in numbers? Two essays by Willaim Deresiewicz in The Chronicle for Higher Education--one last January, and one penned only a few days ago, argue that it is. In his most recent essay, Deresiewicz quotes two studies, one from 1985, and one from 2004, that show a marked decline in people who have a "close confidant." In 1985, only one out of 10 people said they lacked such a person in their life. In 2004, that number had climbed to four out of 10. And that was before so many blogs and social networking sites expanded the number of options (and distractions) for how we spend whatever social connection time we have.  

So as we spend more time connecting to the world, it appears that at least some of us may be trading off depth for breadth. We are at once more connected and less connected, depending on how you look at it. But that's not the only impact that concerns Deresiewicz. In his essay from last January, entitled "The End of Solitude," he talks about the impact of constant connectivity on our comfort with being quiet and alone. Just as boredom comes from a discomfort with idle time, he argues that loneliness comes not from being alone per se, but from discomfort over being alone. Just as a small child has to learn to put themselves to sleep, we have to learn how to be comfortable with being alone. And that takes practice ... practice that is far easier to avoid with all the distractions of constant connectivity. 

The essays are an interesting read on the history of friendship, social values, and how evolving technology has affected our social connections, from the evolution of the suburbs to the advent of the Internet. And whether you agree with his assessment of Facebook and its impact on social connection, he raises some interesting and valid points. 

Without question, there are certain elements that exist in inverse proportion to each other. An Olympic gold-medal athlete has deep expertise in one area, but generally trades off experience and knowledge in other subjects for that one field of excellence. You can go deep, or broad, but generally not both. Quality begins to degrade if increasing quantity is demanded in the same time frame. If you have 10 priorities, you really have none. The same goes for intimacy. Just ask anyone who's tried to balance multiple intimate relationships at the same time.

Friendship is less demanding than a more intimate and vulnerable romantic connection, but the same principle applies. I've noticed, the more times I've moved, and the more people I've met, how much harder it is to keep up with all those friendships on any significant level. Acquaintances are easy to maintain with casual, group emails and Holiday notes. But real friends? They take time and energy--both to develop, and to nurture or maintain. 

Facebook, Twitter, Group Emails, texting and other mass communication and connection vehicles don't preclude anyone also taking that time and focus to develop a few deep friendships, any more than they preclude taking time to read, think, or get comfortable with yourself, alone. But they do throw more potential and tempting distractions in the mix, as well as a slightly guilty feeling that we should be keeping up with all those people. In our increasingly immediate, non-stop society, all of us struggle to find enough time for family and friends. And the more of that already-squeezed time anyone spends maintaining a broad network of Internet, text, Facebook and Twitter friends and updates, the less time and energy they have to devote to any one friend or person. It's just simple math. 

Once upon a time, books and conversations were the only distractions we had. We also tended to stay in small, local communities, so we had years to develop ties with one small group of people. Is there a link between our moving away from those communities and the development of more media to assuage the loneliness and distance that ensued? I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me there was. But in any event, the media and distractions came. First radio and movies. Then TV. Then videos. Then video games, the Internet and the cell phone. For the past 50 years, there's been some passive way to avoid facing silence, alone with yourself, if you really wanted to.  

At the very least, the increase in connection and distraction possibilities increases the need to make choices among all the options. There is no technology that can speed up the time it takes to have an intimate, personal, and unique conversation with a single friend. But it can increase the number of friends, past and present, with whom I could have those conversations, either via email or just through the reconnection magic of Internet searches. So the temptation is there to become scattered--and in trying to keep up with all, to end up keeping up well with none.  

Does that mean that our friendships are in danger of becoming less deep, or that the increased distractions mean we've gotten worse at learning to be alone, in silence? Maybe. But only if we've allowed it. Avoiding scatteredness--in social connections, anyway--is simply a matter of prioritizing and letting go of things that are less important. And getting immersed in distractions is a choice. For those who are afraid of being alone, there have always been distractions. For those of us who recognize the value of silence and deeper connections, I doubt the advent of new technologies will suddenly change our craving for those things. 

Indeed, as I've sat in a snow-bound Connecticut house, curled up with a bad cold the past few days, I've remembered again the beauty of a slower pace of living. One that allows for a long chat with an old friend, a well-developed thought, or the joy of spending time over a piece of writing not due two hours later. But I also love being able to keep in frequent touch with lifelong friends who live in Paris, in ways we never would if it took mailing international letters, instead of email, to connect. 

As always, it's a matter of balance; of being master of the sorcery at our disposal, instead of letting it master us. Of course, balance itself is a skill that, like being comfortable with solitude or a deep friendship, requires patience, dedicated effort ... and evolves, in most cases, with age, experience, and time.

Photo credit: Cameron Spencer/AFP-Getty Images

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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