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.

Unnamed “Guest”
From an Atlantic live chat with the author


In May, David Samuels distilled the personality and musical genius of Kanye West as he followed the Watch the Throne tour, Kanye’s collaboration with Jay-Z. Many readers and commentators took note of President Obama’s reiterated judgment that Kanye is a “jackass.” Many others took umbrage at the headline, “American Mozart.”

David Samuels’s account of Kanye West’s talent and egocentricity is entertaining, but the title conceit seems oddly off-pitch. Mozart is only half-relevant: one is astounded that this childish boor could have generated sublime works like the Requiem, the “Coronation” Concerto, the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, and so on. West’s art does not stand in bizarre juxtaposition with his life; rather, his art is of a piece with his life.

Andrew S. Mine
Chicago, Ill.

The works of the prolific Mozart were and are brilliant and will continue to thrill music lovers for hundreds of years to come. It is unlikely that anyone will remember Kanye West 20 years from now. If he is remembered, it will be as the narcissistic, crude, rude, silly “jackass” that he is. Like most pop-culture stars, he is merely the current fad. If you must make an American comparison to Mozart, try Aaron Copland or Philip Glass.

Luci Chrostowski
Evanston, Ill.

You have to wonder if Obama really actually listened to a Jay-Z song? And that’s not to say that there is anything wrong with Jay, but let’s be real here: those two concepts don’t match …

Jay-Z, at least in his music, totally contradicts the message Obama has presented over and over again to the community. A former drug dealer, who started as a mere corner boy in Marcy Projects and worked his way up to pushing kilos up and down the East Coast, Jay-Z has built an entire career on glorifying the drug and gun culture in his music … While you have to give credit to Jay for his ability to ensure that his art does imitate his life, it is hypocritical to judge the exploits of those in the community who act like a Jay-Z song, yet condone and befriend the biggest perpetrator of that culture.

And while I have no interest in debating the validity of that “Kanye is a jackass” statement, I do wonder about the ability to be so vocal on a nonpolitical “foe” and so mum and diplomatic when it counts the most. Sort of like Black-on-Black violence—we are aggressive and vicious to each other yet silent and humble when others—like say a Boehner or Gingrich or Cantor—attack …

In the greater scheme of important issues related to the office of the presidency, this probably falls between what Bo had for dinner last night and the question of who Malia will take to the prom. But for me, it illustrates the contradictions between what we say we want as a community—and that is reputable black leadership and role models—and the celebrity and symbols of power that we ultimately settle for.

Charing Ball
Excerpt from a Madame Noire blog post

David Samuels replies:

Kanye West is an American Mozart—a petulant, egomaniacal master of the disposable forms that define American pop culture. He is a genius who speaks to us in our own musical language, just as the actual Mozart spoke to his audience in its language two centuries ago.

According to readers, Kanye West is to Mozart as …

• George W. Bush is to Stephen Hawking
• a very good comic strip is to the Mona Lisa
• Roseanne Barr is to Einstein
• a really good cotton-candy maker is to a chef with a kitchen full of tools and ingredients


When fighting broke out in Libya last year, Jacqueline Frazier—who had been working with Saadi Qaddafi on setting up a potential free-trade zone—conducted press outreach for Libyan officials, until she grew uneasy and quit. Frazier was with Saadi in Niger when he found out that his father, Muammar Qaddafi, had been killed. In the May Atlantic, Frazier described that day.

It’s a creepy article and never quite seems to engage with the horrors and evils in which Frazier collaborated … to help the [Qaddafi] family degrade, torture, and oppress their country a little bit more effectively.

Dancing with dictators is weird. On the one hand they appear to be regular human beings. But dark shadows loom in the background. Saadi Qaddafi is no doubt a complicated man with a range of virtues and vices. Like Carmela Soprano or Albert Speer, he didn’t simply embrace the evil he served. He struggled, he made excuses, he lied to himself, he hoped for the best.

And of course he worked to charm, beguile, and bribe various people to collaborate with him as they all pretended they didn’t know about the secret police, the corruption, the brutal oppression taking place just out of sight. It would all be so different once the free-trade zone was finished! …

Frazier’s account makes her look both brainless and complicit—more Eva Braun than Leni Riefenstahl. Kinder editors would have killed it, but perhaps kindness to Qaddafi enablers isn’t high on the priorities of the Atlantic staff.

Walter Russell Mead
Excerpt from an American Interest blog post


Among Tyler Cowen’s “Six Rules for Dining Out” (May) was “Exploit Restaurant Workers” (No. 5). Cowen said many family-run Asian restaurants pay their employees low salaries, and therefore “offer good food buys.”

For a self-proclaimed “foodie,” Tyler Cowen is in obviously poor taste. The ignorance he imparts regarding the exploitation of restaurant workers deserves to be corrected.

Economic exploitation and human trafficking are not hard to find in low-wage industries where there is a high demand for cheap products and services, but instead are widespread and systemic, particularly in the restaurant industry. Thousands of immigrants (including American citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as undocumented workers) work long hours without pay in small restaurant kitchens across the country because they are vulnerable and easily exploited, whether by acquaintances or complete strangers.

A 2009 report surveying thousands of low-wage immigrant workers found that among those who were paid less than minimum wage or forced to work in dangerous conditions, almost two-thirds did not report their employers, because they were afraid of getting paid even less or of getting fired, not because the work was “part of their contribution to the family,” as Mr. Cowen fantasizes.

Ivy O. Suriyopas
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
New York, N.Y.


In his May review of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, B. R. Myers posited, “Most people’s interest in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction … is a matter of wanting to read the latest Big Novel while it’s still being talked about.”

No, Mr. Myers. I read literary fiction because I love to read. (When I was 12 years old, I worried that I would run out of books to read by the time I was old. A steady stream of readable fiction has given me hope in my late middle age.) I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the publishing world, as long as I get a steady stream of inspiring, well-written fiction.

I liked The Art of Fielding for its baseball story, its liberal-arts-college setting, and especially the character Owen Dunne. Best book I’ve ever read? No. Good read for March 2012? Yes.

Abby Arnold
Santa Monica, Calif.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism in The Bed of Procrustes: “If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated.” If Taleb is right, Myers may have unintentionally increased sales for Harbach.

Jeanette F. Huber
County Cork, Ireland

STORY UPDATE: “American Sweetheart”

In the June Atlantic, Irina Aleksander profiled Marlen Esparza, a 22-year-old flyweight vying for a ticket to London this summer for the Olympic debut of women’s boxing. On May 15, Esparza defeated the Vietnamese boxer Luu Thi Duyen in the World Championships, in Qinhuangdao, China, earning herself a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.