The Atlantic Monthly has run a provocative cover story entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche, a novelist and columnist. Perhaps their success with a former article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” encouraged them to go for this one.
Marche makes some good points, overstates quite a few others, and stimulates some reflection that, hopefully, will prompt discussion among thoughtful people of faith.
Here are just a few quotes to start the conversation with some of my responses:
“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.”
[Is this universal? Are we all more connected and all more lonely?]
“Americans are more solitary than ever before. In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person.”
[These are important stats to know with ever-increasing ramifications for society and the church that wants to reach that society].
“According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans – about 60 million people – are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.”
[I could not find a reference to this study or even a mention of who this “leading scholar” is. That would have been helpful].
“Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy.”
[This is a very important distinction – between loneliness and being alone. But, again, I wonder if his description is as accurate and as far reaching as he implies].
“In the late ‘40s, the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 non-clinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental–health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. …We have outsourced the work of everyday caring.”
[These, too, are important stats to know. But more refinement of the data would be helpful. For example, how do these numbers compare to numbers of other professionals – medical doctors, specialists, etc.? Maybe these stats show we are getting crazier. But maybe they show we’re just addressing problems better than we used to].
Marche adds some good analysis of Facebook and social media. Here are a few comments I found particularly helpful:
“Using social media doesn’t create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another. For the most part, Facebook doesn’t destroy friendships-but it doesn’t create them, either.”
Reflecting on work by Sherry Turkele, a professor of computer culture at MIT: “The problem with digital intimacy is that it is ultimately incomplete: [Quoting Turkele]: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy…We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in ‘real time.’”
[I wonder if an article by Turkele would have been more helpful, even if less dramatic than the one Marche wrote].
“The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.”
[There’s a topic that needs a full length investigation by thoughtful Christians: Solitude and meditation in the era of Facebook and Twitter].
Marche could have used some tighter editing touches. His propensity to write as a journalist rather than as an academic produced some unnecessary quips like this: “Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.”
But much of his insight is quite helpful. The last line of his essay may be his best:
“Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.”
As I’ve written before, thinking about technology’s effects on us as persons is a very important topic for our day and age. The simplistic extremes of “It’s all good” or “It’s all bad” won’t help us to use technology intelligently. Is Facebook making us lonely? It probably is for some people but not all. Does it have to? Certainly not.