Americans devour books that say we’ve never been lonelier or more disconnected. The Lonely Crowd, The Fall of Public Man, and The Pursuit of Loneliness rank among the best-selling sociology texts in history. In recent years, Bowling Alone and Alone Together won significant attention and generated widespread debate. Often, these books lament the loss of a Golden Age when Americans had better marriages, stronger communities, safer streets, and greater happiness. They warn that we’ve grown dangerously isolated, and after we read them we return to our friends, families, and colleagues to discuss why we no longer spend time together.
In this month’s Atlantic cover story, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” the novelist Stephen Marche offers an unusually extreme claim about the state of our disunion: “[W]e suffer from unprecedented alienation,” he writes. “We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: The more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
Articles about American alienation may well feel true to those who long for simpler, happier times, but they’re built on fables and fantasies. In fact, there’s zero evidence that we’re more detached or lonely than ever. But since the Atlantic story is already becoming popular and influential, with columnists and commentators citing it as evidence that the Internet is tearing us apart, it's worth showing how it manufactures the myth that we’re lonelier than we’ve ever been.
The article opens with the tale of Yvette Vickers, an elderly former Playboy playmate and B-movie actress who died alone in Los Angeles and wasn’t discovered until her body had “mummified.” Her death, Marche reports, is the symbol of our atomized age. It's a good story, poetically told, and it's powerful enough to distract us from a fundamental flaw with the essay: It offers nothing to support its thesis that “we have never been lonelier.” The closest it comes is a sentence reporting that an AARP study published in 2010 found a dramatic rise in chronic loneliness among adults older than 45 (but not among the younger cohort most likely to use Facebook), and a vague claim that “various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history.” Sorry, this is nowhere near sufficient to establish Marche’s grand claims.
Marche also draws heavily on the work of John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist whom he calls “the world’s leading expert on loneliness.” (I agree.) He quotes from Loneliness, where Cacioppo writes that “Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,” and that “surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing ” But for most of us, Facebook friends are supplements, not surrogates, to our social lives. Neither Cacioppo nor others who do research on loneliness believe that people expect online contacts to “make up completely for the absence of the real thing.”
I reached out to Cacioppo, who told me he does not believe Marche’s “never lonelier” thesis. “I would not say never,” the psychologist emailed me. In fact, Cacioppo continued, “the evidence for it increasing recently is mixed.”
Marche does make some effort to persuade us that Americans have never been more socially isolated, which is a measure of our frayed ties rather than our loneliness. He claims that, “We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy.” But the data he provides to back up this claim come from an infamous study reporting that, in Marche’s words: “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.”
I say infamous because, as I report in Going Solo, my book about the rise of living alone (which Marche quotes), the study’s findings—and the survey data on which they are based—are so inconsistent with all other research in the field that the leading sociologists of social ties distrust them. (There appear to be problems with the original survey data in the 2004 General Social Survey, and an article (PDF) in the 2009 American Sociological Review cautions that “Scholars and general readers alike should draw no inference from the 2004 GSS as to whether Americans’ social networks changed substantially between 1985 and 2004; they probably did not.”
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.
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.