I took my first full-time job in my early twenties, during the pre-internet days. I had moved to a sleepy city where I didn’t know a soul. I survived by reading a lot, but I remember the workdays feeling excruciatingly lonely and long until, near the end of my first year, the magical invention of e-mail arrived. I was then able to have intermittent communication during my day with my old college and high school friends, which was a lifesaver.
These days the first thing I do upon waking is peruse my email and the web. I actually look forward to getting out of bed in order to do so. In fact, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without the internet and all it has brought me– blogs, podcasts, email, forums, and the like.
Prior to the rise of the web, I looked for solace in books and in other like-minded souls on the serendipitous occasions when I could find them. I confess that in my youth there was a lot of hanging-out with people I didn’t have much in common with, who weren’t all that good for me, and who often left me feeling alienated and self-doubting. Part of that was youth, I’m sure, but part of it was that back then we didn’t have the whole ocean of human thought before us to dip into whenever we felt lost or questioning.
The internet gave me a great gift by letting me know there are many others out there who think and feel as I do– who have the same politics, the same sense of humor, who get enraged by the same things. I feel like this enables me to “speed up” my evolution as I don’t spend as much time “lost in the woods” as I might otherwise.
This, of course, has a potential downside. Perhaps the internet is enabling me to stay solo, for better or worse. Without it would I have married someone I wasn’t gung-ho about out of the sheer need of human connection? Is it keeping me from befriending people I don’t have much in common with but might grow to feel affection for over time? Or do both those things spell a lifetime of frustration from which the internet liberates us?
And as much as the internet can make me feel less alone, it can in other ways– particularly via social media– make me feel more alone:
Her conclusion suggests that my sometimes unhappy reactions to Facebook may be more universal than I had realized. When I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they’re all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmers’ market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable. A lot of other people doing the same thing feel a little bit worse, too.
Still, Burke’s research does not support the assertion that Facebook creates loneliness. The people who experience loneliness on Facebook are lonely away from Facebook, too, she points out; on Facebook, as everywhere else, correlation is not causation. The popular kids are popular, and the lonely skulkers skulk alone. Perhaps it says something about me that I think Facebook is primarily a platform for lonely skulking. I mention to Burke the widely reported study, conducted by a Stanford graduate student, that showed how believing that others have strong social networks can lead to feelings of depression. What does Facebook communicate, if not the impression of social bounty? Everybody else looks so happy on Facebook, with so many friends, that our own social networks feel emptier than ever in comparison. Doesn’t that make people feel lonely?