Is Facebook making us lonely? No! Sometimes there are actually clear answers to rhetorical headline questions. Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, gets empirical in the Boston Review. First, we’re not lonelier or more socially isolated generally:
Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.
If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation. When you think back to, say, a century ago, don’t call up some nostalgic Our Town image (although alienation is a theme in that play). Picture more accurately the millions of immigrants and jobless, farm-less Americans trekking from one part of the country to another, out of touch with family and likely to be trekking again the next year.
Second, the Internet isn’t leaving us hived off in our separate dark basements staring in unblinking hypnotized anomie at glowing rectangles of sedating alienation:
People using the Internet, most studies show, increase the volume of their meaningful social contacts. E-communications do not generally replace in-person contact. True, serious introverts go online to avoid seeing people, but extroverts go online to see people more often. People use new media largely to enhance their existing relationships—say, by sending pictures to grandma—although a forthcoming study shows that many more Americans are meeting life partners online. Internet dating is especially fruitful for Americans who may face problems finding mates, such as gays and older women. Finally, people tell researchers that electronic media have enriched their personal relationships.
People typically turn new technologies into devices for doing what they have always wanted to do. And people like to stay in touch. A century ago, Americans, especially women, turned two new technologies marketed for other purposes, the telephone and automobile, into “technologies of sociability.”
With all due respect to Michael Sandel, this is how one reasons about social life: with evidence.
Here’s a question. Why are we so prone to thinking things are going to hell in a handbasket? (Also: what’s a handbasket?) As Fischer observes at the outset of his piece, we seem to think we’ve been getting lonelier for well over a half-century. But we haven’t been. In a smart review of Larry Lessig’s Republic Lost, Ed Lopez notes that Lessig is the latest in a long line of intellectuals alarmed about corruption and distrust of public institutions, all of whom seem to think that there’s something new and especially alarming about corruption and distrust these days. But once you actually stop to think about it, as Lopez does, it looks like same ol’ shit. The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.
None of this is to deny that things get worse. Sometimes things get worse! The music kids listen to these days, for example. Just awful. No doubt there’s evidence to this effect.