Last spring, when talking to a close friend at work about the end of my marriage, I said "I just didn't think that at this point in my life I'd find myself alone."
To my great surprise, her response was to laugh out loud. Seeing my baffled expression, she responded "Liz, you are the least alone person that I know. You're not going to be alone, you're going to be living independently."
Over this past year, I've come to realize how right she was. Yes, I'm living alone (most of the time, at least--I have Alex with me 50% of the time, and Lane makes occasional visits home). But I don't feel alone, not at all. In fact, living by myself has made me more social--I entertain more, I go out more, and I know that my life is full of family and friends who love and support me. Living independently, it turns out, makes me feel less alone, not more alone.
I'm also an active user of social media, and Facebook is part of my daily social life. Like me, many of the people in my life are balancing the competing demands of both family and career, and much as they might like to regularly visit with their friends their schedules make that difficult. Facebook helps to keep the connections among us alive. Five years ago, Clive Thompson wrote beautifully about how Twitter provides a kind of social "sixth sense" for its users:
Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination. [...] It's almost like ESP, which can be incredibly useful when applied to your work life. You know who's overloaded -- better not bug Amanda today -- and who's on a roll. A buddy list isn't just a vehicle to chat with friends but a way to sense their presence. Are they available to talk? Have they been away? This awareness is crucial when colleagues are spread around the office, the country, or the world. Twitter substitutes for the glances and conversations we had before we became a nation of satellite employees.
Facebook provides that same kind of social infrastructure, now. My interactions there with friends and family aren't a replacement for spending time in their company or talking to them on the phone. Instead, they're a way to keep connections alive when it's simply not feasible to see them or talk to them daily.
As Facebook has grown in popularity, however, it has received an increasing amount of negative attention, most recently in this week's Atlantic Magazine cover story by novelist Stephen Marche entitled "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? Unsurprisingly, Marche argues that it is, and does so in emotionally compelling terms.
Happily, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg has written a well-researched and compelling response to Marche, entitled "Facebook Isn't Making Us Lonely." He dissects Marche's article, pointing out the numerous assertions about loneliness and isolation that are refuted by current sociological and psychological research, concluding with this delightful passage:
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.
Klinenberg has researched this topic extensively, and his recent book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone is at the top of my reading queue right now. It's there for both personal and professional reasons. As someone who's now part of this growing trend towards choosing to live alone, I'm interested in how I fit into the larger pattern. And as someone who studies and teaches about social media, I'm also interested in how tools like Facebook and Twitter help to strengthen social ties and increase our opportunities to connect in meaningful ways with the people we care about.