by Christopher Butler on in articles, culture, social media

I came across a wonderful piece written in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled The End of Solitude, by William Deresiewicz, which emphatically voices a concern that I have found growing in me with increasing fervor. Here’s a long, but important quote:

“But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated — we could live farther and farther apart — technologies of communication redressed — we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

I have always known, and been very comfortable with the fact, that I am an introvert. A better term might be an “expressive-introvert,” in that I am capable of, and even enjoy, social interaction, yet need solitude to recharge. However, I’ve noticed in the past year a growing inability to be alone as much as I have been used to in the past. I would not say that this is due to a decreasing need for solitude; I’m also finding myself exhausted most of the time. I feel that it would be foolish to blame this on social media, but I also acknowledge the correlation between these feelings and my increased activity online. Meanwhile, I am thankful for this technology as it has enabled me to stay in daily touch with my brother, who is studying overseas at the University of Edinbugh. Several years ago, we would have been economically forced to communicate much less. Who knows what impact that would have had on our friendship, but I can say today that it is as close as ever. Do I have Facebook, Skype and Google to thank?

I think Deresiewicz is on to something here, and, though the remedy seems simple enough (slow down, quiet down, be alone), I wonder if I have the self-control to execute it. What is reassuring to me is that what seems an unsustainable pace of novelty in our “wired” (this is a bit of a misnomer these days) culture also seems that way to someone else. Novelty, after all, only delays its true cost, so if we are running from boredom or loneliness, we just can’t keep it up forever!

  • https://www.newfangled.com/justin_kerr_blog Justin

    Wow, Chris. You’ve really opened up a social can of worms with this post. There are several threads you could follow; here are just a couple to consider:

    1) Does the technology of “social networking” bring us closer to one another or does it create artificial relationships that only run as deep as our interactions on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.

    2) Exactly when did the dissolution of the nuclear family really begin? the eighties? the fifties? the industrial revolution? Can the splintering of families really be laid at the feet of technology, or is it strictly a social issue, not tied to a specific historical period?

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris


    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

    In regard to the question of whether social networking really brings us closer together, I’m not 100% sure at this point. I’ve wondered aloud about this before, coming to different conclusions each time. For example, I posted way back in November, 2007 about how social networks promote potentially synthetic communities, but then I also posted back in August about how I had met some interesting people via social media, and I must also say that most of my interview connections have come through this platform. I’ve tried at some points to bring a distinction between two types of social networks: One type utilizes existing communities and social momentum for the purpose of gathering and organizing information (think wikis and such), while the other attempts to create communities using online technology and connectivity (think MySpace or Facebook). But I’m not sure that holds up anymore. For example, LinkedIn does both (see my post about why someone with a job should use LinkedIn). At this point, I think I might conclude that while social media can enable meaningful relationships, whether personal or professional, it probably cannot be the sole relational venue in one’s life. Real human contact in real life, rather than in front of screen, still matters.

    As far as the dissolution of the nuclear family, I really have no idea. I wonder if it has less to do with sweeping economic, technological or social changes and more to do with individuals’ decisions.

    What do other people think?


  • https://www.newfangled.com/the_findings_of_able_parris Able Parris


    This is interesting to consider. As you know, I grew up in Wyoming. The plains, man! Some people say there is “nothing” out there, but I loved it. I had a few close friends, a bike, freedom to roam, homemade sleds, books, a basement to take cover in when it rained or snowed, and the best part of it all, a dog.

    We had little, but lived fully, but I don’t know if I could go back to that way of life. I’d like to think so, but now the city life and traveling has gotten in my blood. Because of that, I am more and more dependent on email, phones, RSS feeds, and so on.

    I know hundreds more people now than I did then, but you’re right, solitude is more difficult. Since this is the first time I’ve considered the connection, I’ll have to ponder on it more, but I thought I’d add these thoughts.

    Thanks for posting.


  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris


    It’s interesting that you’re equating the city life and traveling with a dependency upon email, phones, RSS, etc. I wonder if that is a necessary connection?

    I have a friend who lives in New York City, works at a cutting edge design shop, travels frequently, including to Europe, yet she is part of no social networks, does not have an iPhone or BlackBerry, and barely even uses email! Somehow, the connection is not necessary for her.

    I wonder if you would have the idyllic life you describe if you were a kid living in Wyoming now? Maybe it’s just that technology was less of a factor for kids growing up in the ’80s than it is for kids growing up today?


  • https://www.newfangled.com/the_findings_of_able_parris Able Parris

    I was rough on making the connection to technology. Let me clarify.

    Moving from Wyoming to Kansas City in 95 opened up a whole new world. We even got cable! I soon got a cell phone, was introduced to the internet, and had the freedom you get when you have a car at age 16.

    Moving to a bigger city and gaining technology came at the same time for me which is why I never thought that it was the technology that bought on the feeling of isolation. I always thought it was moving away from the plains.

    Anyways, I’ll keep digging at this idea…


By Christopher Butler

Chris Butler is the COO of Newfangled. He writes and speaks often on design and the web. You can follow him @chrbutler. More by Christopher Butler