Don’t Believe the Atlantic Cover Story: Facebook Isn’t Making Us More Lonely

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April 19 2012 11:15 AM

Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely

And Americans aren’t all that lonely, either. Refuting the new Atlantic cover story.

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Among those who are now skeptical of the spike in social isolation is Matthew Brashears, one of the authors of the article Marche draws on to claim that one in four Americans has no confidant. “I certainly don’t think it’s reliable,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2012. Neither does Claude Fischer, a Berkeley sociologist and a leading scholar of American social ties. His new book, Still Connected, definitively refutes the Marche thesis that Americans have grown more detached. Drawing on 40 years of social surveys, Fischer shows that the quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are about the same today as they were before the Internet.

I reached out to Fischer to get his response to the Atlantic article and he told me that many of Marche’s historical claims were as unfounded as its sociological ones. “When the telephone arrived,” Marche writes, “people stopped knocking on their neighbors’ doors.” Fischer, whose America Calling is a landmark study of how the telephone affected U.S. social life, found that “When the telephone arrived, people didn’t stop knocking on their neighbors' doors; they called and then knocked.” Marche argues that “If cars created the suburbs, surely they also created isolation.” According to Fischer, “The car did not isolate us; women flocked to driving cars because cars made it easier to get out and see people.” 

Marche also draws on U.S. cultural history to explain our proclivity for loneliness. He reminds us that “The great American poem is Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ The great American essay is Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance.’ ” But, as I write in Going Solo, for all our talk of self-reliance and rugged individualism, Americans are actually far less likely to live alone and enjoy key forms of personal autonomy than people in other countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and Japan. What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are. 

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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 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. “Facebook is merely a tool,” Cacioppo tells Marche. “Like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.” He adds: “How we use these technologies can lead to more integration, rather than more isolation.”

After speaking with Cacioppo, 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, March 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.  “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.” 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 is professor of sociology at New York University and the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. He tweets at @ericklinenberg and his website is www.ericklinenberg.com.