Alone time

by Rob Horning

17 August 2006


A few months ago, researchers at Duke and the University of Arizona released a study called “Social Isolation in America,” which looked at trends in “discussion networks” and introduced the widely cited statistic that nearly a quarter of Americans have no one they cite as a confidant, up from 10 percent in 1985. The conclusion one might draw from this is that America has become more anomic and lonely (as Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone) and that communications technology is having the effect of discouraging close contacts. The entertainment industry, for example, has moved toward an instant gratification model in the experiences it manufactures (“me media”), and these serve to engender impatience with other people’s interests, destroying the reciprocity required to make friendship function. It becomes more compelling to groom a MySpace page and quantify our marketing potential in a numeric friend count then to put in the time to forge a friendship that goes beyond, say, having both listed Angels & Airwaves as a favorite band. And timeshifting to consume entertainment when we want, and using Internet searches to try to consume precisely what we want, may seem to be such useful tools that we want to apply them to our friends, and timeshift them through various “presence management tools” (like not answering a cell phone) to more convenient times and only deal with them when we feel like it. We may want having friends to be more like watching Friends.

Though the researchers suggest that people may not see communication by such means as the Internet and cell phones and so on as “discussion” (the medating technology may then be undermining the personal connection that might otherwise come from communication, making what one takes away from commmunicating to be not that another person was reached but that a neat new gizmo was used), ultimately Internet technology, in their opinion, generates weak ties and erodes strong ones.

While these technologies allow a network to spread out across geographic space and might even enhance contacts outside the home (e.g., arranging a meeting at a restaurant or bar), they seem, however, to lower the probability of having face-to-face visits with family, neighbors, or friends in one’s home Boase et al.,  Gershuny,  Erbring, Nie, Hillygus, and Erbring, Wellman et al. note that Internet usage may even interfere with communication in the home, creating a post-familial family where family members spend time interacting with multiple computers in the home, rather than with each other. They suggest that computer technology may foster a wider, less-localized array of weak ties, rather than the strong, tightly interconnected confidant ties that we have measured here.

My pet theory has been that convenience has been trumpeted as such an overriding social good that the inconveniences of friendship make them seem not worth the bother. Intimacy is inconvenient; most people will only tolerate it from a spouse. The study puts it this way: “The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents). The education level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population.”  A graph further reveals “there is a very sharp increase in the probability of social isolation for all levels of education, but the greatest change occurs in the middle range of education.” Here’s a grand generalization: This would seem to conform to the segment of society most likely to adopt technology and integrate it imperfectly into their lives, letting it create a kind of path dependence regarding accelerated experience and the need for more convenience to keep up with the conveniences already provided. These obviate the need for patient, slow-building, long-lasting friendship.

Lisa Selin Davis, in this Salon article about the study presents a rather sad array of characters who are post-friendship. “Some people seemed almost proud to say they could call no one a friend, proud of the fortitude that loneliness requires. My dad once told me that friends are people you can do nothing with, but these days, people seem to prefer doing nothing by themselves.” We meet the guy who has replaced friends with his therapist, a guy who moved upstate and replaced all his friends with books, the 20-year-old girl who goes out alone and gets a thrill rejecting every person’s attempt to get to know her better, and the guy whose wife spends all day on the Foo Fighters message board online.

I like my alone time as much as anyone, but seeing it illustrated in others makes it sound sort of pathetic. Alone time resists reportage; if asked how I spent it, I don’t really have an answer—the whole point of it is to be busy doing things that don’t need to be told or dramatized, things too mundane to be shared. Or rather, being alone makes these things fall below the scope of narrative; alone time allows one to escape, for a little while, the compulsion to make everything into a story. Of course, some people can’t tolerate being alone, and these are among the scariest people you can encounter. But it is also an illusion to think that loneliness equates to self-sufficiency instead of self-deprivation. Inevitably one stagnates without the pressure and pleasure that comes from pleasing others, or at least engaging them. I wonder if that pressure exists in the same way for friendships mediated over the Internet. Often, when I find myself reaching out to people online, whether by e-mail or by blogging or by commenting or whatever, I experience less a sense of connection than a subtly modulated loneliness, a sense of safe containment that enables me to talk without the fear of being listened to.

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