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Isolation in America
June 23, 2006 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Are we getting lonelier?
posted by digaman (135 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Meatbomb at 8:36 AM on June 23, 2006


From the Washington Post:

Whereas nearly three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide, only half in 2004 said they could count on such support. The number of people who said they counted a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19 percent to about 8 percent.

The results, being published today in the American Sociological Review, took researchers by surprise because they had not expected to see such a steep decline in close social ties.

posted by digaman at 8:36 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


I don't know about lonelier, but my own real-life confidantes circle consists mostly of family. I suppose if there was a family crisis, that could be a problem.
posted by talitha_kumi at 8:37 AM on June 23, 2006


Evidence points to yes.
posted by xmutex at 8:38 AM on June 23, 2006


Gated communities aren't exactly conducive to community spirit.

That said, loneliness is for suckers.
posted by bardic at 8:39 AM on June 23, 2006


From the article: "We're not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com [a popular networking Web site] and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important."

For me, this is both true and not-true. I've definitely found it harder as I get older (I'm in my late 40s) to find time with my peer-age friends to just "hang out" and talk. We all work all the time, have mortgages to pay (well, the better-off of us), kids to raise (those who do), and so on.

I think of myself as a fairly gregarious person, and in many ways, the Internet has meant a huge decrease in isolation from those dreary days of the 1980s when the only person to talk to at home, from time to time, was a face on TV.

And I disagree with the assumption that people don't use the Internet for discussing matters that are "personally important." I do all the time -- well, not much on MetaFilter, but moreso in instant messaging, email, and The Well.

But it's an interesting question.
posted by digaman at 8:42 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is the perfect mate to the previous post.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:43 AM on June 23, 2006


Gated communities aren't exactly conducive to community spirit.

Do you live in one or know anyone who has lived in a enough different places to provide a representative analysis of the alternatives? Even then there could quite easily be some sort of massive confounding variables based on the increased cost of property and the attitude of people who want to live in gated communities for example.

Or were you just too lazy to post all those increadibly convincing links to studies you have burried away in your bookmarks?
posted by public at 8:44 AM on June 23, 2006


My parents lived in a very nice gated community in Jersey City until a couple of years ago. When my father died suddenly, my mother discovered that she barely knew anyone who lived the apartments and buildings around her. She knew the guard at the gate and the guy at the little grocery store, though they were hardly confidants. Granted, this was probably mostly my parents' fault. But most people who lived in this community seemed to consider it a staging area for their jobs in Manhattan across the river, and their place to cocoon with their spouses in front of a screen.
posted by digaman at 8:48 AM on June 23, 2006


It's eponysterical to see a user named "public" rise up to defend gated communities in such a fashion.
posted by boo_radley at 8:48 AM on June 23, 2006


Sorry public, I didn't realize Mefi was now a peer reviewed sociology journal.

Please go ahead and enlighten as to how gated communities are conducive to building community spirit across class and race lines. Personally, I don't live in one and never would, because I'm actually a fan of interacting with people who are different from myself.

That said, I'm reminded of this book, which sounded interesting but I never got around to reading it.
posted by bardic at 8:53 AM on June 23, 2006


I know none of my neighbours, and they mostly don't know each other either from the 1-2 group meetings we've all had. I think not being close freinds with the people you live next door is not at all unique to gated communities.
posted by public at 8:55 AM on June 23, 2006


Think of how much people look for "privacy" in the homes they choose or build. Privacy from what?

We've lost our common spaces. Go to smaller communities in Asia or South America and I'll wager you'll find people sitting around eating, playing ping-pong, smoking, dancing or just sitting around talking. The street looks alive -- not busy but alive in an unhurried way. There's a rich accidental crowd of encounters and interactions.

Where is that here in the U.S.? Look out your window: Do you see people? Do you see anything going on?

If you do, I think you're in a lucky minority. Most of us are so obsessed with our "privacy" that we've cleaned away every speck of unplanned interactions. So we see other people: In the grocery store line; through car windows; and on TV. That seems to be about 90% of our public lives now. No wonder our collective emotional life is drying up.
posted by argybarg at 8:55 AM on June 23, 2006 [3 favorites]


It's safer this way.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:55 AM on June 23, 2006


The Number of People Who Say They Have No One to Confide In Has Risen

This is why we have anonymous questions on Ask MetaFilter. Confide in the internet!
posted by mathowie at 8:57 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Most of us are so obsessed with our "privacy" that we've cleaned away every speck of unplanned interactions.

Thank god. I hate those assholes.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:58 AM on June 23, 2006


What argybarg said.
posted by public at 8:59 AM on June 23, 2006


You are all my closest frineds.
posted by dov3 at 9:03 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


You're so right, argybarg.

I count myself very very lucky -- perhaps even temporarily lucky -- because for the last 25 years, I've lived in the same little neighborhood in San Francisco, Cole Valley, which has more of a tightly-knit small-town feeling than in any small town I visit these days for my work for Wired. If I sit down at the cafe a block away, at least ten people will say hello to me by name. (It can even get annoying at times, being un-anonymous.)

But when I travel to Middle America, I'm horrified at how few third places seem to be left, outside of the mall and TGI Fridays. The old downtown areas are decrepit, people drive to their jobs, drive to the big box stores on weekends, and in many little towns, they don't even build sidewalks anymore in the residential areas, because pedestrians are rare. (I was stopped by a policeman in Longview, Texas, a couple of years ago, for the suspicious act of stepping out of the house I was staying in and walking down the block to smoke a cigarette.)

Third places are important. But you wouldn't think so from the ways our communities are being rebuilt. For many people, the Internet has become the primary third place. Is that bad? In many ways, I think it's fine -- it's better than outright isolation. But it's a little disembodied, and lacks the affirmation of ties to the local community.
posted by digaman at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2006 [3 favorites]


I've pretty much always been lonely. I wish there was a way to not feel awkward when I eat alone in restaurants. I always take a book, but that only helps a small amount. I'm also screwed because I'm not in a relationship and because I don't work with other people, so two major sources for eating companions aren't there.

I think modern communication methods (the Internet, long-distance phone, etc.) may have spoiled us on making friends face-to-face with people who aren't very similar to us. I think I'm pretty picky about who I become friends with, and it seems like a lot of other people are, too. "Well, sure, we share a lot of interests and have similar ways of looking at the world, but I'm too busy posting on Myspace right now..."

My closest friends live at least several hundred miles away, and probably my best friend lives is in Australia. They're all great people, but it sucks when I need a hug or a face-to-face chat. I'm still trying to make more friends locally, but it's hard to meet people and hard to become closer with them.

Argybarg, I lived in Taiwan for eight years and, in spite of the huge amount of hubbub and interaction there, I didn't make very many friends. A large part of it is just me, and then there's the fact that I was a foreigner. But Taiwanese people also just don't make that kind of deep, confidential friendship very easily. There was always a distance there, and a strong uncomfortability with talking about actual personal issues. It seemed like a lot of them really only felt comfortable talking about Big Issues with their families. (Fine, if you happen to have a good family to interact with. Bad if your parents beat you, or disowned you, or you don't have a family, etc.) Places with high population densities and good public interaction result in a lot of acquaintances, but not a lot of deep friendships.
posted by jiawen at 9:09 AM on June 23, 2006


You know America, these places called "cities" still exist, and they're pretty good places to live, or at least visit on weekends to shop and eat and socialize and interact with people you wouldn't normally. Go ahead and leave the bunker behind once in a while--it'll do you and the rest of us some good.

(I used to live in Charlottesville, VA, which has a really nice public downtown mall. There are some problems, but simply taking a street and closing it to cars and giving small business owners some incentive to invest is a pretty good way to start. Minneapolis is really cool that way too. DC is great as well, but has a weird dynamic on weekends--so many people work there but don't actually live their. Still, the National Mall is a real treasure by all standards. Open spaces in urban environments are great. And healthy on a number of levels.)
posted by bardic at 9:10 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


U S A ! U S A!
posted by wigu at 9:14 AM on June 23, 2006


I'll wager you'll find people sitting around eating, playing ping-pong, smoking, dancing or just sitting around talking.
posted by argybarg at 11:55 AM EST on June 23


I by no stretch of the imagination live in a ritzy, exclusive neighborhood but it is a nice place. It is fairly diverse, both by ethnicity and age. But if a bunch of people were sitting around on the corner doing some of the above-described activities, I hate to say it, but someone would probably call the cops. I'd wager that is true for a lot of suburban type places in the U.S.

Even in the downtown areas of mid-sized cities seem to have less and less places to comfortably sit and hang out (unless you are a paying customer). I guess you wouldn't want people hanging out there all day, like maybe people who don't have jobs, or homes.

I believe we as a society are getting more fragmented and isolated. Some of that is because of fear.

And what digaman said.
posted by marxchivist at 9:14 AM on June 23, 2006


The more you think about it, the more cars, or more specifically American car culture, is part of the problem. I lurve my Civic and couldn't function without it, but just think of how much interaction the simple act of walking somewhere opens you up to. I mean, look at a typical American apartment complex (I've lived in a few)--it's really a parking lot with some housing attached. Sad.
posted by bardic at 9:17 AM on June 23, 2006


You know America, these places called "cities" still exist, and they're pretty good places to live, or at least visit on weekends to shop and eat and socialize and interact with people you wouldn't normally. Go ahead and leave the bunker behind once in a while--it'll do you and the rest of us some good.

Well, since you're so welcoming, how could they resist?
posted by jonmc at 9:18 AM on June 23, 2006


Open spaces in urban environments are great. And healthy on a number of levels.

This is true, but it takes something more subtle than an "open space" to foster social interactions in cities. Downtown San Francisco has a huge, broad-sidewalked main street called Market Street, and it's a spectacular disaster as a social matrix, unless you're one of the many bike messengers and homeless people who hang out near the MUNI entrances. (One of the most popular social spots in previous years, down near the Embarcadero, used to be mobbed at lunch with regulars, was "beautified," and was promptly deserted again.)

The social life of San Francisco unfolds in the neighborhoods -- Noe Valley, the Mission, Cole Valley, North Beach, the Inner Richmond and Sunset -- where the "open spaces" are built to human scale.
posted by digaman at 9:19 AM on June 23, 2006


Living somewhere conducive to "building community spirit across class and race lines" is not the same as having close friends. Friendships with people similar to yourself are not worthless.
posted by amber_dale at 9:19 AM on June 23, 2006


I don't think it's TV, though it may be partially Internet. We've been entrained (yes, I just got done watching Century of the Self) to shop for the best everything for ourselves; the one that is easiest and feels most good. Why pursue local relationships, full of awkward impositions, uncomfortable silences, and physical proximity? But the Internet's not entirely to blame. Folks approach friendship as consumers, and may pass up a nice person with faults because, well, they have faults. But don't we all?

argybarg's got a point: Most of our interactions in common spaces are commercial/service.

digaman: As a walker, I've noticed the disappearance of the sidiewalk, too.
posted by Eideteker at 9:24 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


I too blame this and everything else on tv...I have only myself for sex .

this sort of movement away from community has been developing for any number of years but the article simply does not deal withn causes.
posted by Postroad at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2006


This is what is (was?) so great about New Orleans. Its practically expected of you to at least be on speaking terms with your neighbors, regardless of what race/class differences there may be. This is a practical necessity, because crime permeates everyday life here. Strong neighborhoods are fragile things, especially in a poor cities. It is that pride in place that occasionally counteracts loneliness.
posted by Pacheco at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2006


Well, aside from my love of drinking, this is another reason I love bars. They're one of the few places that it's fairly easy to start a conversation with an interesting stranger. And just about every town, urban, suburban or rural has a bar or two.
posted by jonmc at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2006


I believe we as a society are getting more fragmented and isolated. Some of that is because of fear.

A lot of it's because of fear. It's also real easy to hate someone you've never had to interact with face-to-face. This trend toward isolation, I'm convinced, is a major factor in the right-vs. -left political hostility, which seems more pronounced now than at any time since the 1960s.

That said, I do know my neighbors, as several of us have kids roughly the same age, and they play together. My neighbor is an 80-something elderly woman for whom I've shoveled her driveway, taken out the garbage and gone grocery shopping. She rewards with the occasional case of Heineken (she doesn't have to reward with anything, but I will indeed drink it, thank you).

But maybe it's something about living on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood built in the 1950s. When we lived in a townhome, I didn't know any of our neighbors, and that was just fine.
posted by kgasmart at 9:29 AM on June 23, 2006




Alone? Hell, I'm totally fucking isolated. Sometimes, thinking back to the hell interpersonal relationships have cause me, I prefer it this way. Other times I think of the hell my few remaining ones are still causing me. So why the hell do I wish for someone to talk to occasionally? Because I'm an idiot, that's why. Friends don't last. I had one not that long ago, but they just sortof stopped e-mailling one day.
posted by IronLizard at 9:29 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Bukharin made a very insightful post earlier this year that raises the provocative question that one reason the mega-churches have been growing so rapidly in the US is because they help fill the "third place" void, and that yearning for community is then leveraged by the GOP into political gain. (Note: In context, Bukharin is criticizing the Left here from the Left, so please don't get yer panties bunched up defending the Left or Democrats from a perceived attack here. I think Bukharin's point deserves broader attention from Blue State netroot-types.)

One of the reasons the Left (if the Democratic Party can be called that) has failed so miserably is that it has no social institutions to draw power from.

Fundamentalist, evangelical churches serve as the social arm of the Republican Party, a kind of nominal party that provides constant, active community participation in places like the Midwest where community is wanting. These churches have massive youth groups and build stadiums for their basketball teams, have bake sales, take people camping or on mission trips to Mexico, clean up highways, put on plays, you name it.

While the Church is not an explicitly political organization, it is implicitly so, and gives its followers a worldview that they take to the voting booth. The socialist parties in their heyday were similarly structured - you had socialist bingo clubs and socialist reading libraries, etc.

What unites the "Red States" and the "Blue States," a largely fictional dichitomy anyway, is that both are yearning in their own ways for a restored sense of community. We assume that in the age of television nobody wants to leave the house. Everyone wants to leave the house. Americans languish in utter boredom. I grew up in Texas - people are desperate for something to do. The Church gives them something to do. Why doesn't the Left?

posted by digaman at 9:34 AM on June 23, 2006


Is it really all down to geography, though? Could some of it be due to attitude? There are a gazillion self-help books and Oprah episodes devoted to helping people "stand up" for themselves and I think everyone knows at least one person who takes this advice too seriously. "I've got to do what's right for me!" Going out for Chinese food when you really wanted Italian isn't being a doormat, it's compromise and some people really don't seem to know the difference anymore.
posted by jrossi4r at 9:37 AM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]


I think it's laziness. People don't want to be bothered with taking care of each other, taking responsibility for each other, until they need to be taken care of, or share some responsibility.

I blame the Industrial Revolution. Now that we can survive without social contacts, we think we don't need anyone until its too late and we are all alone.

Well, you all. I have lots of friends. I'm exhausted.

P.S. Since you can't pick your neighbors, I see them as relatives. You help if asked, otherwise, butt out.
posted by ewkpates at 9:39 AM on June 23, 2006


>>They're one of the few places that it's fairly easy to start a conversation with an interesting stranger. And just about every town, urban, suburban or rural has a bar or two.

I agree. Bars (especially ones in hotels and airports) are a great place to have very interesting and often very fleeting conversations. I learned the merits of possum versus squirrel eatin' in a dive bar in San Francisco's Tenderloin district for instance.

I also agree that the car culture has a lot to do with this isolation. As does our growing dependence on cellphones and blackberries, etc. Even when in public places, many are elsewhere and uninterested in the moment and the chance meetings that can occur.
posted by birdsong at 9:40 AM on June 23, 2006


I'm just wondering if you guys have ever actually been around other people. They are terrible. They make little noises and smell and talk about things that don't make any sense and have no relevance to anything. God, it's tiresome. Why would you want to be around them? I say build walls, and build them high.
posted by xmutex at 9:40 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


have very interesting and often very fleeting conversations

Sure... but that's not the kind of abiding friendships addressed in the study.
posted by digaman at 9:44 AM on June 23, 2006


This is what is (was?) so great about New Orleans. Its practically expected of you to at least be on speaking terms with your neighbors, regardless of what race/class differences there may be.

God, yes, I remember that too. When I lived in Omaha, I actually had known my landlord, who lived next door, for years, but we almost never interacted. In Minneapolis, I have never known my neighbors nor wanted to. But in New Orleans I had met and regularly chatted with everybody on my block, and I couldn't walk around the Quarter without seeing people I knew and stopping to talk to them. Now that I'm black in Minneapolis, I rather miss that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:46 AM on June 23, 2006


Now that I'm black in Minneapolis, I rather miss that.

!

:)
posted by digaman at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2006


digaman - The 'left' settles for the internet, which is truly a hollow source of community.
posted by sfts2 at 9:49 AM on June 23, 2006


Don't forget that there is a downside to being very group integrated too: it encourages groupthink, usage of rhetorical tricks, status behavior, etc.

We would like to have close friends, but our own nature makes it difficult.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 9:50 AM on June 23, 2006


Heh. All those reasons you listed xmutex? That's why I love people. The little noises. The smell and talk. But I'm more into Joyce than Dostoyevsky, so go figure. Actually, they're both great for different reasons.

No doubt people can be tiresome. And annoying. And I cherish my privacy. I just don't see why the big house-white picket fence thing or even, god forbid, the gated community thing, can't co-exist with simple choices to go to a public park once in a while, or join a club, or go to a bar (but those can be tedious for different reasons and frankly, a waste of money when I can invite people over to watch a game or a movie and drink better stuff for less).

I mean, I appreciate the intent behind this article. And the genuine desire for more quality friendships and/or communities, and no doubt structural things like property values and cars and crime play a negative role, but part of me has to just say something along the lines of "If you have to ask. . . ." Be open. Be positive. Try not to judge beforehand. All that good stuff we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten but sometimes forget. Also, read the local paper--there's usually tons of festivals and gatherings going on that are under the radar.
posted by bardic at 9:53 AM on June 23, 2006


I know every time I'm in a "public place" in LA someone either asks me for money, is obnoxiously barking on their cell phones or is in some other way making me uncomfortable and unhappy.

I'll gladly take isolation.
posted by AspectRatio at 9:54 AM on June 23, 2006


Perhaps part of the problem is a combination of incessant unsolicited social interaction driven by crowded cities, cell phones, email, the concept of 24/7 work, dual income parents, baseball/soccer practice, ubiquitous media, commercials, jingles, billboards, ipods, 353 channels, satellite radio, instant messages...is it any wonder that sometimes people just want to be left alone?

It is a sad state of affairs when one of the more pleasant aspects of my day to day life is the 53 minutes of relative quiet I get twice a day.

People in Texas want something to do, people in NYC want some peace and quiet. Film at 11.
posted by sfts2 at 9:57 AM on June 23, 2006


Say it loud, I'm black in Minneapolis and I'm proud.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2006


We've been entrained (yes, I just got done watching Century of the Self) to shop for the best everything for ourselves;

Our individual roles in society are more than ever defined by how we make and spend money. And, both activities lead to isolation as we compete with each other to get it and then insist on defining our own self-created, self-occupied realities by how we spend it. As we are constantly informed by the manufacturers of everything from deodorant to cars: it's all about me! me! me! and the collarary of course is screw you, you, and you.

Heh, no I'm not bitter, I just think it's obvious that people are made relational (most anyway) and the aquisition of things is replacing the personal enrichment and validation we might otherwise get from relationships with others who may even be different from ourselves. Instead of opening up to people and asking for support we go to the mall and buy clothes, electronics, and or excess food. It's sorta like masturbation as opposed to sex with a real human. It's easier, we're in control, and it's far less messy but ultimately hollow.
posted by scheptech at 10:09 AM on June 23, 2006 [3 favorites]


"I'll gladly take isolation."

Me too. People suck.

Present electronic company excepted, of course.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:12 AM on June 23, 2006


There was a little restaurant / bar around here that became a hang out for the locals. It quit being fun about 4 years ago, yet so many of the personal, and even business, relationships that still operate in the neighborhood started there. I attended two weddings and rely on these friends for financial, business, legal, and personal advice. How do the new people meet here now? No idea.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:13 AM on June 23, 2006


Astro Zombie is Prince?
posted by bardic at 10:14 AM on June 23, 2006


A true friend is the greatest of all blessings, and that which we take the least care of all to acquire.

Francois de La Rochefoucauld
To acquire or to keep: friendship, like marriage, is more a matter of hard work than leisure and ease. Well met is not necessarily long kept. I have friends I have known for decades who have no other friends they have known for more than a year or two. People clutch at friendships like straws and yet, once have grasped them, drop them a week or month later for whoever is shiny and new. It's very sad to see how disposable we all have become to each other.
posted by y2karl at 10:15 AM on June 23, 2006


Yeah, AstroZ, I didn't mean to... I dunno. I just thought the syntax of "Now that I'm black in Minneapolis" suggested that you meant to type "back," or rapid reincarnation or something. Ahem. Sorry!

in New Orleans I had met and regularly chatted with everybody on my block, and I couldn't walk around the Quarter without seeing people I knew and stopping to talk to them

Yeah, one of the things that has been really distressing about the drowning of New Orleans is all the reports of how tightly-knit the neighborhoods were down there.
posted by digaman at 10:16 AM on June 23, 2006


The lack of sidewalk culture here in Los Angeles is so very dispiriting for this former San Franciscan (Pacific Hts/Western Addition, digaman, but before that, Cole Valley). There, I could sit on the porch with my dogs and the Sunday paper, and several neighbors would wander by for a chat. At the local park we all knew each other by our dogs' names.

Here, one must drive to a local park, which is huge and impersonal. There's no stoop, nothing analogous to a stoop. One can drive to Venice or Larchmont Ave or Silverlake, but that's akin to driving to another city. If one even drives (I don't.)
posted by goofyfoot at 10:23 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Someone upthread mentioned Bowling Alone - I strongly recommend it. A bleak analysis of the fraying of small-community social bonds combined with an optimistic vision of stronger civic groups and community investment. Zillions of stats too,which is part of why it's such an effective book.
posted by waxbanks at 10:24 AM on June 23, 2006


Didn't RTFA (and I'm not caught up on the thread), but my thought is that as technologies improve (TiVo, caller ID, etc.), we're able to focus more on familiar media, content, and people and filter out the random noise (lousy primetime TV, unrecognized caller ID, etc.). I never watch live TV anymore, preferring instead to watch programs that my TiVo has culled from my predetermined preferences.

In general, this is a good thing. It's now easy to keep in touch with "close" friends across the country and, generally speaking, across the globe, via a select list on an instant messager, VoIP, or e-mail. But in doing so, we often shut ourselves off to the noise of strangers, neighbors, and such.

Metafilter: There is Good Stuff in the noise.

Actually, this group is the closest to a bunch of random cool people that a lot of us have. Awwww, group hug!
posted by LordSludge at 10:24 AM on June 23, 2006



posted by thanatogenous at 10:24 AM on June 23, 2006


Television is a big part of the problem, he contends. Whereas 5 percent of U.S. households in 1950 owned television sets, 95 percent did a decade later.

Oh yeah, lets blame it on TV! The 50's: "the good ole days" (ack)

---

Maybe ppl are choosing to be less involved in personal relationships now because they can. I loved my friend's summary of her independence, "I've got 'triple A' and a cell phone, why do I need a man?"

(insert: 'helpful neighbor/buddy/social network')
posted by Surfurrus at 10:29 AM on June 23, 2006


Astro Zombie is Prince?

I'm not actually black. That was a typo. And I'm not Prince. I'm Andre Cymone, alas. Astro Zombie 2 is Prince, and Astro Zombie 3 is David Rivkin.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:33 AM on June 23, 2006


That all sounds hip and smartly jaded, Surfurrus, until you have to face the inevitable middle-to-late chapters of human life. Ask my mom, who was content to be deeply in love with my dad and have few friends for nearly 50 years. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack. Now she lives four blocks away from me, with precisely three confidants: me, my sister in Los Angeles, and her telephone therapist in New Jersey.
posted by digaman at 10:34 AM on June 23, 2006


I'm off to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka if you guys and gals want to join me. Cheers.
posted by bardic at 10:37 AM on June 23, 2006


I sympathize with your mother, digaman, but the cynical and jaded response would go something like this: "Why did she let herself become so dependent on such a fragile framework? If she had gotten accustomed to solitude from the beginning, she wouldn't be feeling any loss now."
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:44 AM on June 23, 2006


You should get her a cable modem, digaman. I think perhaps for her generation this might be a handicap, but those born later? The 'net and the social networks it creates aren't going anywhere (Well, maybe a 404 error). Of course, there really is no substitute for people you know personally. Not that I'm advocating becoming a cyber hermit, it may seem like a good patch to a broken social life but, like booze, it's a temporary solution and not the same thing. One of my neighbors, a guy I hung out with some time ago, just stopped by and told me his place was robbed. He used to be somethng of a friend, but the last time I saw him some months ago, he just wanted to borrow a tire iron. Maybe I just bore people to death with my dislike of proffessional sports and lack of TV show memorization. Oh wait. I stopped having friends when I quit drinking regularly. No shit. It just hit me.
posted by IronLizard at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


That ain't Lake Minnetonka.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2006


Often alone, rarely lonely.

I've lived in my low-end apartment for over 5 years, and would have trouble matching more than two of my neighbors to the names on the intercom panel in the foyer.

And that's the way I like it.
Uh-huhn, uh-huhn.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2006


The future belongs to crowds.
posted by xod at 10:53 AM on June 23, 2006


"I've got 'triple A' and a cell phone, why do I need a man?"

Ok but her life won't really be complete without the other essential electronic appliance.

Anyway yes - good summation of the attitude. Money replaces the need for relationships. What do I need people for, I can just buy 'em - or even better, just the parts I want.
posted by scheptech at 10:57 AM on June 23, 2006


You should get her a cable modem, digaman.

Planning on it! Craigslist ho. I mean, as in "ahoy."
posted by digaman at 11:02 AM on June 23, 2006


and bardic sure as hell ain't appolonia.
posted by Hat Maui at 11:06 AM on June 23, 2006


Ok but her life won't really be complete without the other essential electronic appliance.

Not true. That phone she has...I bet it vibrates.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 11:08 AM on June 23, 2006


You should get her a cable modem, digaman.

my 75 yr old mom's been online (w/ a cable modem!) for years and it's helped her a lot get over my dad's death 10+ yrs ago. She recently discovered you can call people's regular phone using skype and has been calling anyone and everyone she can think of...
posted by birdsong at 11:10 AM on June 23, 2006



Most of us are so obsessed with our "privacy" that we've cleaned away every speck of unplanned interactions.


There's a PSA on one of the college radio stations here that encourages people to donate their old car to charity. Certainly a noble idea, but one of the reasons they give for donating instead of selling, along with the tax deductions is the fact that you'll "avoid having to show your car to strangers." I always thought that was kind of disturbing, but I guess that's attractive to people.
posted by Kronoss at 11:11 AM on June 23, 2006


There's this japanese horror film called Pulse (or Kairo or Circuit)....

It's one of the few recent horror films I've seen with distinct and important "moral/social" message... in regards to exactly this subject.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:28 AM on June 23, 2006


Cellphones, I think, are a large part of the problem. It seems like people in public places are all studiedly focused on their cellphones and being indifferent to their surroundings. We need more cellphone-jammers. I can state for the record that I've been utterly lonely living in NYC for years. Can't imagine what living in some generic exurb would be like. /Bitch and moan
posted by Astragalus at 11:31 AM on June 23, 2006


Metafilter: they are not discussing matters that are personally important
posted by Smedleyman at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2006


digaman: That all sounds hip and smartly jaded, Surfurrus, until you have to face the inevitable middle-to-late chapters of human life. Ask my mom, who was content to be deeply in love with my dad and have few friends for nearly 50 years. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack. Now she lives four blocks away from me, with precisely three confidants: me, my sister in Los Angeles, and her telephone therapist in New Jersey.

Your mother's situation is much more common than the image of happy social seniors we see on commercials, digaman; young ppl simply don't notice it until their parents start to age (and even then want to deny it).

You wouldn't believe the number of ppl who die completely alone in my mother's building (a high rise with lower rent for seniors -- not a care home). She talks about the depression they all go into when a death has been discovered in an apartment after several days (usually by smell). It is way too frequent. I don't even want to go into the 'leaping off the top floor' incidents.

My mother feels protected by her (very dysfunctional - bordering on abusive) relationship with my nutty sister. Would more social connections help her? I don't know. She complains about social connections draining her with demands and expectations. Old age sucks.

And ... middle age is not far from the same. If "people who need people are the happiest people in the world", then most of us are in trouble. I agree with the article; we as a culture, have turned away from social 'entanglements' -- whether that is 'smartly jaded' or ... simply inevitable, given all the reasons shared by others here.
posted by Surfurrus at 11:40 AM on June 23, 2006


Often alone, rarely lonely.

You're absolutely right. Big distinction to be made between "lonely" and "alone." And it's a distinction that a lot of people don't get, or care to make, opting instead to stigmatize those who prefer aloneness as misanthropes, sociopaths, or worse.

I would rather be completely alone than non-lonely and miserable. Depending on the company you keep, the choice is easy to make.
posted by blucevalo at 11:46 AM on June 23, 2006


Indeed, Surfurrus.

Advice for guys who feel like they can't get laid and women don't notice them: Just wait 50 years. You'll have your pick of hundreds of desperately lonely, smart, sweet, bereft, frightened, gorgeous-when-they-were-young widows.

It's horrible.
posted by digaman at 11:48 AM on June 23, 2006


Anyway yes - good summation of the attitude. Money replaces the need for relationships. What do I need people for, I can just buy 'em - or even better, just the parts I want.
posted by scheptech

Think about it this way -- for centuries ppl banded together for protection and survival; basically relationships were based on how useful they were to each other. Then, along came patriarchy and women (and other lesser/weaker ones) had no choice ; they had to belong to whichever man they could get to chose them -- hopefully one that could also provide for and protect them. This went on for 500 years (and hasn't completely ended). So, now ... if a modern women can use money to replace those parts of a relationship that are based on dependency (and the accompanied ownership), why on earth should she seek "the whole cow'??
posted by Surfurrus at 11:52 AM on June 23, 2006


I think people are aware that there are more things that can be confided now than they were aware of in 1985.

Who would trust their neighbor enough to confide in about their abortion? My (admittedly limited by not being in people's brains) idea is that people thought a certain amount of things were not talked about and now a lot of those things are discussed rather openly and plainly, but they're still pretty sure they don't want to tell Mrs. Gross across the street about them.

Homogenization of suburbs is gross and probably does nothing to put people at ease. But I live in a city, I deeply love isolation, and I'm happy that I can get my fill of chatter at the corner store and quickly walk back home.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:53 AM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


digaman, I don't know if I would agree with your "solution" (would love to see what your mother thinks of it!). I don't see many older women desperately sad because of a lack of a romantic relationship.

In fact, I would imagine the best possible social setting for any elderly person would be an extended family (hopefully living with respect and status) -- and with deep connections to people of many different ages. (And ... with a door to close for privacy -- and a scooter to escape when needed.)

Actually (this just occured to me) -- isn't that what would be best for everyone?! (Damn these dysfunctional families we get stuck with! Why can't we just buy a good one on ebay!)
posted by Surfurrus at 12:15 PM on June 23, 2006


When my children were very little, I was part of a group of at-home moms that became very close-knit. We saw each other regularly with and without the kids and chatted on the phone often. As the kids entered preschool, however, the moms got busier and busier with their kids' activities. Of the group, I am now the only one who actually has time to just sit and have a cup of tea and a chat. Because I homeschool, I often have other moms say to me that I must miss having time for myself, but I think I have more free time than parents who schedule every minute of their kid's day. Of course, to pay for all these activities and gear, (not to mention the bigger house in the suburbs with the better schools) most of the moms have gone back to work, as well, which adds to the stress.

As for the suburbs, here in MA we have the housing market pushing people ever Westward in search of the American dream house. What were once tiny farm towns are now bedroom communities full of "executive neighborhoods" My stepkids live in such a neighborhood, and have no place to just hang out with other kids or any way to get there. It's hard to even ride bikes around the development, since it is perched precariously on a steep hill, has no sidewalks and is a series of cul-de-sacs looping around each other.
posted by Biblio at 12:56 PM on June 23, 2006


Advice for guys who feel like they can't get laid and women don't notice them: Just wait 50 years. You'll [You] have your pick of hundreds of desperately lonely, smart, sweet, bereft, frightened, gorgeous-when-they-were-young widows.
posted by dgaicun at 1:19 PM on June 23, 2006


if a modern women can use money to replace those parts of a relationship that are based on dependency (and the accompanied ownership)

In other words, merely turn the tables, own 'him' instead being owned. Meh, color me underwhelmed in the context of this loneliness discussion.

Actually (this just occured to me) -- isn't that what would be best for everyone?!

Right, but you don't get there by taking the disabling view that every man you meet is plotting your reduction to personal property or childish dependency.

Anyway it occurs to me that, although it sounds like someone's suggesting she can replace friends with employees, we're probably ascribing more weight to the anecdote than it deserves.
posted by scheptech at 1:26 PM on June 23, 2006


I blam SUV's.

Also, TV. Mostly daytime TV, but also "Friends". Pernicious it is.
posted by bonehead at 1:37 PM on June 23, 2006


In some sense, the Internet serves as a good "third place," but in some senses, it is lacking.

The main area where it's lacking? You (almost) never get to meet any of the people! I don't care what anyone says about our virtualizedcyberfuture. Meeting people face-to-face is important.

Also, I don't like my friends' increasing dependence on email and IM as a means to keep in touch. I feel like people are doing this where in the past they would make a phonecall. Email and IM are terrible substitutes for a phone call.

I would say that I felt the strongest sense of community in the town where I went to college. However, it was a college town, and college towns are pretty utopian in that regard. Unless you become an academic type, you must inevitably leave the college town, lest you become one of The People Who Never Left.

I live in NYC now, and the sense of community is so-so. I probably felt it most strongly when I lived in the East Village.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:42 PM on June 23, 2006


I'm a relatively distant person and have difficulties with lots of social interaction. I didn't have anyone I'd really call a friend until maybe sophmore year in high school. I'm still friends with the true friends I made in high school, despite various people going to and dropping out of college and leaving or coming back to their/my hometown. I have no desire to collect large numbers of acquaintances, so the people I keep in touch with I truly value. I think the false personas and "friendly" demeanors many people focus on trivialize their unique identities and prevent them from finding others who are truly compatible with them.

As far as geography and local life, I've lived in Milwaukee my entire life, minus a year spent in the Upper Peninsula in college. I've lived in 5 pretty different areas of the city and maybe 8 different houses or apartments, so I've got a decent amount of experience in that regard. I never met any friends in the suburbs, though had some that I met from other circumstances. I'm currently living in two places, both close to the city, about a mile away. They both have pretty vibrant streets, though one area has more people similar to me. I've met a few people at events and have a pretty supportive network of friends that have branched off from that. I'll often run into people that are FOAFs or I met at a party some time and I enjoy their company but merely speak to them when I run into them. Every suburban parent I know has the impression that this is a "bad" area and generally stays away or has "concerns" that I or my friends live there. Everyone I know that lives there thinks it has some problems but loves it. I don't know all of my direct neighbors, but lots of people in the neighborhood. The other area I live in is considered "ghetto" by most and being a skinny white nerd, I certainly don't "fit in". However, despite my reservations about socialization, I know almost everyone of my neighbors and at least say hello when I see them and hang out once in a while. People are outside almost all the time, so you see them, talk to them, and get along despite your differences. People watch out for each other. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that the isolationist culture fostered fear of crime and a constant desire for comfort, aided by certain modern technologies such as AC, TV and cars that leads people to spend almost all their time inside buildings is a very fundamental part of loneliness in the modern world.
posted by nTeleKy at 1:47 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Also, I don't like my friends' increasing dependence on email and IM as a means to keep in touch. I feel like people are doing this where in the past they would make a phonecall. Email and IM are terrible substitutes for a phone call.

Although I'm guilty of that sometimes myself, I've observed the trend thusly:

Best Friends Fovever! --> Talk Every Day --> IM Frequently --> Email now and then --> Make occasinal comment on MySpace page --> Only emails are forwareded jokes --> Haven't seen him in years --> He died when?!?
posted by Cyrano at 1:49 PM on June 23, 2006


I hate to say this on MetaFilter, since it's considered blasphemy, but one of the cures to this lonliness was Starbucks as the "Third Place". It's been their mantra since their inception and has served a very useful purpose in this regard.

I could go into a huge monologue about their history, roots, and beliefs, but I'll just leave it at: Starbucks isn't as bad as people think it is. It really does help to build communities, if you allow it to.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 1:58 PM on June 23, 2006


I like everything about Starbucks except their coffee, honestly. As long as we're tying our rafts to corporate entities, how about Barnes & Noble? They let you read magazines for free, and a few of the ones I've known like to have weekly readings or club meetings (the one in Charlottesville had a philosophy club meeting that I had no desire to go to, but hey--fun and social for some. More power to 'em.).
posted by bardic at 2:05 PM on June 23, 2006


I do wonder wether any of you who post a lot on MeFi feel that posting on MeFi is fulfilling in the way face-to-face contact often is?
posted by jouke at 2:16 PM on June 23, 2006


Email and IM are terrible substitutes for a phone call.

Example cell phone call (for me):
Caller: Hey!
Me: Hey
Caller: Do you want to *static*
Me: What?
Caller: Do *static*
Me: Just get on AIM.
*call drops*
posted by triolus at 2:18 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Me staring at a blue screen, waiting for an answer.
Isn't that a comment on the issue at hand in itself?

Good night to you all.
posted by jouke at 2:32 PM on June 23, 2006


Two days ago I wrote the following to a fellow Mefite:
I turn to Metafilter as a kind of grounding, listening to people talk, argue, contribute, query, be silly. It's so helpful through all this.

On the day I went to the radiologist, June 22 2005, a year ago, I had cancer, deducing it from the long term symptoms and intuiting it, I had been posting in a marvelous MeFi thread about umami, MSG and taste buds:
http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/43377

The mental companionship in that thread got me through the cancer diagnosis. I really felt the feistiness of the people in that conversation with me in the waiting room, during the exam and in the doc's office being told. It sounds strange but there it is. MetaFilter threads have meant a lot to me this last year. People come out of the threads into my life. Do you find that?

For many years I ached for intellectual companionship and never found the kind I like. Not always overly academic but careful about being precise and accurate, thoughtful but not airy-fairy, scientific but also artistic, not too goodie goodie-holier-than-thou but concerned about things, passionate but not fanatic, silly but not inane. MetaFilter is that for me.
posted by nickyskye at 2:39 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Can't help thinking that this trend would make the Bush admin happy (which is not to suggest that they actually engineered this state of affairs). Seems to me it would be easier to monitor/manipulate a socially-isolated population than one with strong communal bonds.

Also, for the "I don't need/want other people" crowd, why did you feel the need/desire to speak up, then?
posted by treepour at 2:51 PM on June 23, 2006


nickyskye - are you all better now?
posted by lilbrudder at 2:51 PM on June 23, 2006


jouke writes: I do wonder wether any of you who post a lot on MeFi feel that posting on MeFi is fulfilling in the way face-to-face contact often is?

Absolutely not. Then again, I never put those sorts of expectations on it. Mefi is a nice place within the context of real life, not a substitute for it.
posted by bardic at 2:53 PM on June 23, 2006


after reading the article and comparing to the way i have shfted my handling and prioritizing of friendships, i find that my personal mobility lends itself to developing friends of "convience" , as selfish as that may be. knowing that in a year or two i may be living in another city or country dictates that relatioships will only be temporary. even with the availability of technology to support a long-distance friendship, it doesn't seem to last without physically being with the other person, the lives just get too disparate. this also ends up and a negativly buiding cycle, where i feel it is important that i recognize the impermanance of my friends, and that the loyalty/strength of the friendship is limited by its terms. approaching it this way makes me feel more capable of handling the way friendships in our culture seem to be progressing.
posted by keame at 2:56 PM on June 23, 2006


People come out of the threads into my life. Do you find that?
That's great Nickyskye. It does explain a lot of the energy people put in.

MeFi to me is interesting, funny, irritating, boring (US politics!) but always leaves me with a hollow feeling.

Maybe that is caused by the fact that MeFi is not in my native tongue. I have this little theory that your native tongue is infused with childhood experiences and layered with an infinite amount of personal, social, emotional experiences.
A foreign language, lacking that, can just carry information.

I even contemplated posting something against the MeFi rules to get banned and thus force myself to stop hanging out here.

The MeFi equivalent of suicide-by-cop! :-)

Not always overly academic but careful about being precise and accurate, thoughtful but not airy-fairy, scientific but also artistic, not too goodie goodie-holier-than-thou but concerned about things, passionate but not fanatic, silly but not inane. MetaFilter is that for me.
Very well put. Yes, that's the best of virtual communities. The web as envisioned in '95.
posted by jouke at 3:01 PM on June 23, 2006


Bardic: Mefi is a nice place within the context of real life, not a substitute for it.
Of course, although some commenters on this page seem to cherish solitude.
But then why would you and other prolific posters hang around here a lot? (assuming that you are one of them)
posted by jouke at 3:06 PM on June 23, 2006


Example cell phone call (for me):
Caller: Hey!
Me: Hey
Caller: Do you want to *static*
Me: What?
Caller: Do *static*
Me: Just get on AIM.
*call drops*


This is exactly me and my brother these days.
posted by furiousthought at 3:09 PM on June 23, 2006


I think the problem is real and growing. And of the candidates mentioned here for the cause - geography, internet, suburbs, etc. - I think scheptech comes closest. It's commercialism in a broad sense. Whatever times and places there have been in people's lives for doing something non-commercial, have been squeezed out, paved over, charged for.

Notice how many of the meeting places mentioned have as their primary purpose buying or selling something - coffee shops, bookstores, other stores.

Religion used to be a major non-commercial semi-public space (in some sense) for a much wider range of people. Now as said upthread, religion fills the role mainly for conservatives or right-wingers. It depended on dogmas and rules such that when people abandoned them (for good reasons), the community factor went too.

There's also a division between single life and family life - the culture (here in USA anyway) makes single life a temporary condition, people pair off and disappear from the group of friends until it fades away; then families tend to be insular.

Most of my social interaction has been workplace-connected in recent years...

The communitarians have not been helpful. All they've come up with is trying to articficially manufacture a sense of community with totalitarian zoning laws.

The best hope, it seems to me, is in diminishing the influence of business (esp. corporations) in all areas of life.

Anyone who's read the Bowling Alone book, did the author identify a main cause, and what if anything did he recommend?

I'll stop rambling now.
posted by jam_pony at 4:04 PM on June 23, 2006


Example cell phone call (for me):
Caller: Hey!
Me: Hey
Caller: Do you want to *static*
Me: What?
Caller: Do *static*
Me: Just get on AIM.
*call drops*


Example of IM conversation (for me)
Me & Friend : Taking 1 hour to discuss over IM what could be discussed in 10 minutes over the telephone.
Me & Friend : Avoiding tangents and long sentences because it would take too long to type it all out.
Me & Friend : Confronted with the choice of typing in a long paragraph whilst my friend sees "Afroblanco is typing," or, alternately, breaking it up into sentences and risking being interrupted.
Me & Friend : Missing out on the comfort of hearing someone else's voice.
Me & Friend : Missing the spontaneity of vocal conversation.
Me : Having to tolerate chatspeak (grrr)
Me : Having to tolerate being IMed while at work (grrr)
Me : Deciding not to bother, only using IM for work-related functions.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:05 PM on June 23, 2006


"Are we getting lonelier?" Anyone who posts to this thread on a Friday night is certainly suspect.

Personally, the only time I've actually gotten to know any of the neighbors in my suburban apartment parking-lots-with-housing communities is during the big power outage in August 2003. Everyone left their boxes and grilled a bunch of communal food that would otherwise go bad and drank a bunch of communal beer that would otherwise get warm.

As for the people who suggest that "these places called 'cities' still exist," I suggest they explain that to Detroit (and L. Brooks Patterson).
posted by revgeorge at 4:29 PM on June 23, 2006


jam_pony: Putnam puts the primary blame in Bowling Alone is placed on television. But I'd take that with a grain of salt, considering--in a book published less than a decade before--he had blamed hundreds of years of history for a lack of social capital in southern Italy, going by the idea of path dependence as developed by Nobel economics prize winner Douglass North. The basic idea is, your society gets on a certain path as far as its beliefs and institutions and whatnot go, and it's hard to get off, but . . . then the box with the cathode ray tube comes along and hypnotizes everyone and--whoopsie!--you're off the path, at least in America.

Honestly, there is much that is interesting in Bowling Alone, and I don't think he's too far off the path to something. He's an admirable guy, and sparked a much needed debate. Still, there are soooo many problems with his concept and his ideas as to causation, and no amount of stats he throws around can change that.

There are a billion journal articles on social capital out there that critique the concept quite well, and tell you more about the continuing debate over this concept. You could spent all night running through them, and the next month actually. And in doing so you could learn that the concept is much different in sociology, which is where Putnam picked up the foundations of his concept. In sociology, however, social capital is something you hold at the individual level. You have a certain amount of "social capital" you can use when looking for a job or trying to organize a dinner, certain connections, contacts.

With Putnam, by contrast, social capital is something held at the community level--and that's a big problem from a scientific standpoint. And in BA he ignored the idea that there can be bad social capital (e.g., the Klan has trust and norms and all that), that people may use their contacts to take advantage of people, that wealthy people don't need contacts in lower-income areas of a community as much as vice versa, etc.
posted by raysmj at 4:37 PM on June 23, 2006



To ask the question is to answer it.

Contemporary North American society doesn't make much room for friendship. There's room for career. There's room for money. There's room for sterile, suffocating marriages. There's room for shopping.

There isn't much room for low-key friendships among unrelated adults.

Look at your typical mass-market bookstore. You'll find a million titles about saving for retirement, surviving office politics, ad nauseam. There'll be some relationship guides: "How to snag a man by playing 1950's-style head games" and "How to get into womens' pants by playing NLP head games." Books on simple friendship will be few and far between.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:41 PM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]


"One fact the fine conversations of last week -- now already fast fading into oblivion -- revealed to me not without a certain shudder of joy -- that I must thank what I am & not what I do for the love my friends bear me. I, conscious all the time of the short coming of my hands, haunted ever with a sense of beauty which makes all I do & say pitiful to me, & the occasion of perpetual apologies, assure myself to disgust those whom I admire, and now suddenly it comes out that they have been loving me all this time, not thinking of my hands or my words, but only of that love of something more beautiful than the world, which, it seems, being in my heart, overflowed through my eyes or the tones of my speech. Gladly I learn that we have these subterranean -- say, rather these supersensuous channels of communication, and that spirits can meet in the pure upper sky without the help of organs."

-- Emerson, from his journal, Sept. 1, 1840
posted by digaman at 5:50 PM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]


Well, aside from my love of drinking, this is another reason I love bars. They're one of the few places that it's fairly easy to start a conversation with an interesting stranger. And just about every town, urban, suburban or rural has a bar or two.

too bad the smoking bans ruined that.
posted by brandz at 6:36 PM on June 23, 2006


Brandz, my experience has been exactly the opposite. All the smokers standing outside had an immediate and personal connection. Mind, I'm now an ex-smoker and I live in California where I never had to risk frostbite to get my nicotine, but stepping outside was a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, a way to get some more personal face time with someone once you met at the bar.
posted by lekvar at 7:03 PM on June 23, 2006


A very interesting discussion indeed...

I live in a very diverse urban area in MA. I had an opportunity to go gated during my last apt. search a few months back. I simply couldn't bring myself to implant into a manufactured neighborhood. One of the very unique things about where I live, which stands contrary to any city I've lived in previously, is that it is not neighborhood by ethnicity. I have Vietnamese, Brazilian, Irish, Italian, etc. all in a very short space. Old couples, young families, college kids...We're all packed in right here. It forces everyone to accept cultural jumps that they/we/I might not if they were located in a city with a Little Italy, Chinatown, etc. I freakin' love it.

More to the point, I think a combination of factors have caused our growing tendancy towards isolation. TV is certainly one, the internet another...But by far the trends which tear us apart as a human community are consumerism and cars, in my opinion. People don't just hang out anymore. If they do, it's at the mall or big box store. I live 5 minutes walk from one of the nicest parks in my city. I'd bet less than 10 percent of those in this range of the park ever use it. I do own a car and drive to work, but I walk quite a bit. Those who I encounter have become friends of mine. Those who drive everywhere, I wouldn't know if they lived in my building. No surprise that they don't know the city outside of their commutes either. I've given directions to people who've lived here many years longer than I. They learned the city driving bleary eyed to work with morning talk radio. I learned it walking, with the sounds of my surroundings. I'm not superior, but it makes a difference in terms of comprehension. There's a lot you absorb at a walking pace that you just won't any other way, no doubt.

Commercial interests are creating more and more artificial human interactions each day. With each of these, our limited free time becomes even more limited, in terms of discussing the family or any intimate interests.

I've found that my isolation from the general public has related directly to my isolation from American Idol, Top 40 radio, and the like. It's a mixed bag, I'd rather talk to no one than Idol fanatics, but I'd rather talk to real issues people than no one. Being active in politics has helped me a lot.
posted by rollbiz at 7:49 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


stepping outside was a way to separate

right, separate us. that doesn't quite make me feel welcome to have to go outside to smoke, so i don't even bother to go out to bars anymore. why bother when i can stay home and drink and smoker, and for way cheaper.
posted by brandz at 8:22 PM on June 23, 2006


I'm not sure the suburbs are to blame for the lack of community there. There's nothing about the design of a suburb or a gated community that prevents communal gathering and nothing about cities that forces it, really. I've lived in both cities and suburbs and found that I didn't know my neighbors anywhere.

The problem is that people are not making an effort to create a sense of community. Sure, living in a city might force you into contact with more people, but it's pretty easy to ignore them if you want. Gated communities might divide people by class, but there's no reason rich people can't create a community among themselves.

I'm not sure what the solution to the problem is, but it seems likely that it lies with the people involved and not the buildings they live in.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:41 PM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]




I don't know that this is such a new phenomenon. Emile Durkheim was writing about anomie back in the 1800's.
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:51 PM on June 23, 2006


Jouke: I have this little theory that your native tongue is infused with childhood experiences and layered with an infinite amount of personal, social, emotional experiences. A foreign language, lacking that, can just carry information.

That's exactly what I think Jouke, and have been struggling with for a while now. English is my second language (I came to the U.S. when I was six) and whereas I speak it well and even better than my native tongue, I too feel that a certain very elemental and immediate quality is missing from it. My native language has so much more resonance to it. I feel it in my bones and with my senses in a synesthetic manner. Also I'm not sure how true this is but supposedly it's been proved by neurologist's that the parts of our brains that deal with language are completely formed by the age of five. That would suggest to me that any language learned after that is undergoing a translation in the mind even if you're not directly conscious of the translation happening.

Anyhow sorry to derail folks, this is an amazing thread. It seems to have really struck a nerve in people.
posted by Skygazer at 9:52 PM on June 23, 2006


Often alone, rarely lonely.

I've never had a "My god. That's me!" moment more intense than when I read this book. Now is a great time to be a loner. What you all call social isolation I call normal. Seriously, I've got MySpace and free evenings and weekends to keep in touch with my friends. I don't need much more than that.
posted by Kronoss at 10:00 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Seriously, I've got MySpace and free evenings and weekends to keep in touch with my friends. I don't need much more than that.

Ya think ? Well, for one thing, there is this whole thing we used to call the Bill of Rights comes to mind. Every man and woman manning the barricade to his or her own foxhole doesn't offer much of a counterbalance to the Total Information scan your grocery card, read your email, track your phone calls, market to you in microscopically defined niche, my ever more politically powerless little individual consumer monad. Parties of one never get to steer the wheel of the One Party State, a fact not lost on those who run the latter. Solitude Forever is not an anthem we can afford to march to. Political power does not come through the click of a mouse or remote. Your so called unique individuality is a xerox of a xerox anyway.

We are in this together: if we are to have any hope left in maintaining any real control whatsoever over the circumstances of our lives, we are going to need to spend time with each other in some very organized ways. We are powerless alone.
posted by y2karl at 11:20 PM on June 23, 2006


It does help to get involved in stuff. Food drives, charity, whatever, on a local level, it's pretty damned rewarding.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:49 PM on June 23, 2006


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
posted by Cyrano at 12:06 AM on June 24, 2006


People in Texas want something to do, people in NYC want some peace and quiet. Film at 11.

I couldn't disagree more. I grew up in Houston, and have lived in NYC for the last eight years. I've seen a lot of America, and Houston is easily the most unfriendly, viciously hateful armpit in all of it. Naturally, I found friends there, in the neighborhood, and I was lucky enough to live adjacent to a park, so my childhood was largely protected, but to watch the adults there was to see paranoia about saying any wrong thing to even your closest friends, lest the social network witch-hunt begin. Houston is absolutely horrible, particularly in this regard, and the only reason Dallas is any better is because it has Deep Ellum, where people have gone because they're sick of all the other shit. (The Montrose area of Houston is similar, except that it's not nearly as much fun, and being the gay area of town, if you live there, your family is summarily cut off from their suburban networks as punishment. Again, Houston is awful across-the-board.)

NYC, however, is like the world's largest small town. Just tonight, my friend and I were on a train to go out to one of my ex's birthday parties, and every other stop brought more friends of ours into our group. Dar Williams said it best: "People find this city, becauser they love other people. They want their secretaries. They want their power lunches." I don't have a secretary, and I don't have power lunches, but I know that if I wanted peace and quiet I would live somewhere thats more affordable and boasts a decent job market. People come to NYC because they want community, and they stay because they know they can't find the same kind of community anywhere else.

Example: There's a Deli near me (East Willamsburg, Brooklyn. I'm white, and decided many years ago to never live in a white neighborhood again, specfically because of a lack of cummunity) which I just came back from. I'm their once or twice a day, but a couple of months ago. the guy at the cash register saw me come in and got excited. With a beaming smile on his face he gave me a deck of cards he'd picked up in Atlantic City the previous weekend. He'd gotten them specifically for me. We didn't even know eachothers' names, and still don't, but he then showed me pictures of his pregnant wife and how scared and excited he was to be a father. That's community.

The point of this rambling (and I could ramble much further) is to say this. To all of the MeFi posters saying that people suck -

Frankly, fuck you.

People in Junior High and High School sucked. Get over it. Most people you'll meet as adults are awesome, and often just as lonely as you are. Actually meet people, actively, and don't decide that people suck because they won't approach you when you don't approach them. The problem is widespread myopia, where everybody thinks they're entitled to popularity. If you think back though, the popular people (outside of school) have been those who respected other people enough that others respected them.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:25 AM on June 24, 2006


Frankly, fuck you.

Yeah, and thanks for making their point for them.
posted by IronLizard at 2:16 AM on June 24, 2006


This thread makes me really happy. Someone is addressing the issue of community and why we are drifting apart. I think it's because of technology (Internet, Ipods, TV, Etc) that we loose the chance to see each other face to face, and that's important. All we seem to have left is meeting over coffee or food. There are no social groups left. It's all done online.
posted by wheelieman at 6:21 AM on June 24, 2006


Commercial spaces should be designed that support and encourage more than just the spending of money. Shopping malls should should not only encourage but support some of the same activities once supported by the town square. Yeah it's messy and uncomfortable to have all this life happen around you, and I prefer to ignore people too, but lets face it, the alternative is that we sit in our homes terrified of one another fearful and powerless glued to the FOX terror alerts, Pedophile alerts and Angelina/Brad baby alerts. (bleech)
posted by Skygazer at 8:43 AM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Nice post, Navelgazer.
posted by digaman at 10:14 AM on June 24, 2006


Solitude Forever is not an anthem we can afford to march to.
We are in this together...


Who's this "we" you're talking about?


"I don't hate people, I just seem to feel better when they're not around."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:56 AM on June 24, 2006


))<>((
posted by xod at 1:30 PM on June 24, 2006


I have a friend who has lived worldwide who tells me, that Americans are very socially unconnected people. In fact when she first moved here that was one thing she had a very hard time getting used to it. Another friend of mine who has lived overseas, told me he hated coming back, because he missed the daily interaction he got to have with other people.

I think one thing that adds to this problem is the mobility of society too, families all live spread out, gone are the days where Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, aunt and uncles and cousins all live in the same town. You may only see them 4 times a year or even less considering how far away they live. People are forced to move so much due to economic forces, the long time roots are no longer are in place.

I am active in my community and it is always the same people who want to be involved, it seems the majority of folks just go to work, come home, watch TV and sleep and have no interests beyond the little bubble they live in. There is less leisure time also affecting this as well as I read in a study somewhere Americans are working as many hours as the Japanese in the 80s.

I've seriously met people who have told me, "I have no time for friends". Our society is truly messed up in its priorities. I have met people who have absolutely no one or who are clinging to only one or two folks...like an elderly mother or spouse.

My personal belief about what is happening?:

Mat 24:12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
posted by Budge at 2:58 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


lilbrudder: nickyskye - are you all better now?

That was so nice of you to ask, lilbrudder. Thank you. Cancer isn't curable yet, so it may come back any day or not for some years, I don't know when. But I did finish my treatment. YAYYY and am just starting to feel like a human being again, weak but hopeful.

Are we getting lonelier?
Actually, I think the loneliness was always there in people. It just wasn't permitted to be talked about. People are allowed to talk about their feelings in ways now that was never socially acceptable before.

When I lived in India I loved the warmth of community there and also saw how people could have their lives eviscerated by malicious gossip.

Prying, snooping and mean gossip by neighbors can make living in small towns or communities very uncomfortable, especially if one is not a cookie-cutter person, fitting into whatever mold others want.

I've lived in 32 countries over 25 years and, as hollow and difficult as cyber communication can be at times, I've never had a sense of intellectual and social community as I've had on the web.
posted by nickyskye at 3:09 PM on June 24, 2006


When I lived in India I loved the warmth of community there and also saw how people could have their lives eviscerated by malicious gossip.

Prying, snooping and mean gossip by neighbors can make living in small towns or communities very uncomfortable, especially if one is not a cookie-cutter person, fitting into whatever mold others want.


Very good point. One of the downsides of those tight organic communities is a strong pressure to conform. And sometimes the social obligations of such communities can be a little overwhelming. I remember reading a book about Eritrea, where the author described how her guide would take a completely backasswards route to the market in order to avoid having to have twelve extended conversations with her neighbors; if she had simply smiled and said "Good Morning," it would have been an insult.

Maybe alienation, like whiskey, is a good thing in moderation.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:08 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


It's not just America where this is happening. Most of what has been said here certainly applies to the UK too.

I think it's a combination of technology and the mass media responsible for this trend. Every day all we hear/read in Britain is there are terrorists everywhere, paedophiles everywhere, everyone's carrying knives and they are going to use them on me, etc. Would you trust a stranger in that atmosphere? No, it's just easier to ignore others unless absolutely necessary, retreating into your iPod oblivion. How many people seem incapable of being in public without white earbuds in?

Or maybe it's just fashionable to be the all-knowing cynic and your social status depends on how bitter you are?

The comments I've read here have made me think. I'm the one saying don't trust the media, that it's all lies. But I'm obviously still believing it to a degree, because it's affecting how I interact with people on a daily basis. I fear that initial social contact. It's just beginning to occur to me that others may feel this way too...
posted by 999 at 7:11 PM on June 24, 2006


Fascinating thread, all. The way I tend to think about it is the open versus closed society conundrum; where an open society is a pluralistic, multicultural society. The difficulty is that in open societies the key connections between people - family, local communities, pub culture, third spaces - devolve, whereas in more closed type societies where they are more homogenous, and less democratic, they remain strong. Examples? The Lubuvitch in Crown Heights, the Amish, and small communities as mentioned above where community tends to trump the individual.

To me this opens an interesting tension where it makes sense to live in open society and affilate with a closed one. Or to live in a closed society and still have strong connections in an open one. I'm curious to hear from international commentators like Jouke - do you find that to be similar in the Netherlands?
posted by zia at 7:11 PM on June 24, 2006 [2 favorites]


Pacheco: is. In New Orleans, it's expected that you talk to the other people in line, your neighbors, the people on the bus, etc. It's always a horrible shock to go to other cities in America, where no one talks to each other.
posted by honeydew at 2:49 AM on June 25, 2006


Captain Liberty: Batmanuel, we're not lonely, are we?
Batmanuel: We? No. No no no no - we're too attractive to be lonely.
Captain Liberty: Yeah, but we are alone.
Batmanuel: I'm not alone. Spinsters, shut-ins, tollbooth attendants; these are "alone" people. Batmanuel is lone, as in Lone Ranger, or lone wolf. "Alone" is an unfortunate predicament. "Lone" is an esthetic choice.
- The Tick. "Couples"
posted by Zack_Replica at 5:09 PM on June 25, 2006


argybarg: Go to smaller communities in Asia or South America and I'll wager you'll find people sitting around eating, playing ping-pong, smoking, dancing or just sitting around talking. The street looks alive -- not busy but alive in an unhurried way. There's a rich accidental crowd of encounters and interactions.

Where is that here in the U.S.? Look out your window: Do you see people? Do you see anything going on?

If you do, I think you're in a lucky minority. Most of us are so obsessed with our "privacy" that we've cleaned away every speck of unplanned interactions. So we see other people: In the grocery store line; through car windows; and on TV. That seems to be about 90% of our public lives now. No wonder our collective emotional life is drying up.


That was one of the many reasons I loved living the ten years I did in India. However, there is a great luxury in the anonymity in NYC, that one can be who and what one likes without much censure. It's a freedom with an edge. The edge is that there is no net really if one falls. The edge of that isolation can make people feistier and also more neurotic.

For a while I've been thinking about organising neighborhood get-togethers by renting a local hall and handing out invites for 2 bucks a pop, something affordable, just to pay the hall rental fee. No idea for a theme, just a get together and hang out.

digaman: Thanks for educating me about "third places", had no idea that term existed and it makes a lot of sense. I've been wondering for many years why there are no real r any community centers for all ages. Starbucks may be helping.

The internet, MetaFilter especially, is my third place.

jiawen: I've pretty much always been lonely.

Yes, I could say that for myself too.
Reading Somerset Maugham short stories when I was 17, inspired me to sit alone in restaurants and feel brave about it. Now it's second nature to do everything I enjoy alone and occasionally with a friend or friends.

I think I'm pretty picky about who I become friends with

Me too.

My closest friends live at least several hundred miles away, and probably my best friend lives is in Australia. They're all great people, but it sucks when I need a hug or a face-to-face chat.

Know that all too well. It was especially hard facing cancer.

Places with high population densities and good public interaction result in a lot of acquaintances, but not a lot of deep friendships.

Well said.

Eideteker: We've been entrained (yes, I just got done watching Century of the Self) to shop for the best everything for ourselves; the one that is easiest and feels most good. Why pursue local relationships, full of awkward impositions, uncomfortable silences, and physical proximity? But the Internet's not entirely to blame. Folks approach friendship as consumers, and may pass up a nice person with faults because, well, they have faults. But don't we all?

Nicely said. Intimacy, which promotes authentic connection, means perceiving one's own and others' faults, while building a foundation of healthy trust. That can be scary. The internet and acquaintances may be a way of knowing others without the emotional dangers -or benefits- of intimacy.

digaman: people are desperate for something to do. The Church gives them something to do. Why doesn't the Left?

Great point.

ewkpates:P.S. Since you can't pick your neighbors, I see them as relatives. You help if asked, otherwise, butt out.

I agree.

Astro Zombie: I couldn't walk around the Quarter without seeing people I knew and stopping to talk to them. Now that I'm black in Minneapolis, I rather miss that.

Hell's Kitchen, NYC, is still like that. Nice. It's midtown Manhattan, between 38th Street and 53rd Street. Eighth Avenue, west, to the Hudson River.

It's a cool balance here of people who value their anonymoity and family oriented people.

sfts2:The 'left' settles for the internet, which is truly a hollow source of community.

I don't agree. I find the internet community can, on occasion, like in offline life, be close, helpful, comforting, warm, friendly, educational, inspiring and caring.

LordSludge: There is Good Stuff in the noise.
...Awwww, group hug!


I second that. :)

AfroBlanco:Apparently you live just 3 miles from me, hello!

bardic: I like everything about Starbucks except their coffee, honestly. and how about Barnes & Noble? They let you read magazines for free, and a few of the ones I've known like to have weekly readings or club meetings


I agree and good point.

jouke: MeFi to me is interesting, funny, irritating, boring (US politics!) but always leaves me with a hollow feeling.

Yes, I know exactly what you mean. There's good there but it isn't enough, it's not substantial enough as in being actually held, cuddled, hugged, talking or laughing with a friend in person.

You said: The MeFi equivalent of suicide-by-cop! :-)

ouch, That is poignant. Cyber connections can be addicting because they are there, MetaFilter, is there, 24/7, in ways that offline friends are not.

And there is a river-of-information feeling about MetaFilter too, the entertaining distraction of different conversations all going on at one time like at offline parties, which can also be hollow, because there isn't often a deepening of the intimacy.

MetaFilter: a cyber party.

jouke: Of course, although some commenters on this page seem to cherish solitude.
But then why would you and other prolific posters hang around here a lot? (assuming that you are one of them)


I also cherish solitude but found it difficult in offline life to find the kind of intellectual or social companionship that I found satisfying.

rollbiz: I've found that my isolation from the general public has related directly to my isolation from American Idol, Top 40 radio, and the like. It's a mixed bag, I'd rather talk to no one than Idol fanatics, but I'd rather talk to real issues people than no one.

Nicely said.
posted by nickyskye at 9:59 PM on June 25, 2006


Okay, here's my social situation:

(a) Most of my friends have either moved (in some cases, across the state or country), and/or are now shacking up with SO's.

(b) Once someone shacks up with an SO, they very frequently want to socialize with "couple friends." Me being single is a problem for them.
As for making new friends around my age where I live, guess what? Everyone else is engaged or married and want "couple friends." I've tried to hang out with them solo or with the SO, but it bugs them more than it bugs me.

(c) Most of the friends that moved away don't want online contact- they want a 3-hour-minimum long distance phone call chat once in a while. After spending 2 years at a phone-hogging job, I'm pretty damned sick of being stuck on the telephone. I also have a hard time figuring out when I'm going to call someone time zones away given that my free time for phone calling is around 10 p.m. Pacific.

(d) The farther away people move, the less you end up having in common to talk about over 3 hours anyway.

(e) I spend my workdays either around people 6 or so years younger than me, or 20 years older.

The people I know online have been around longer, are more conversational, more varied, and god knows, more reliable, than most of my "in person" friends. Though yes, it is annoying not to have in-person friends around on weekend nights. But given the slim pickins in real life...eh, what are you gonna do? I'm pretty much a born loner anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:48 PM on June 28, 2006


I'd be interested in the demographics on this.

I'd be willing to wager men are more lonely than women. (In some cases - deservedly so...)

I base this on my own personal experience of pulling up roots in the big city, with it's support system of friends and family, and moving to small town America. Although I've never regretted it, it's been a lonely path.

My wife - being involved in the raising and schooling of our kids - quickly became involved in playgroups, public school and later, home school groups. She made many friends, some of whom became quite close friends. Me - on the other had - being self-employed professional - had few contacts outside of business. As a result, I made few friends, none of them even close to being close. The few men who ever showed up to the various playgroup events I attended, seem to have been dragged there by their wives, and couldn't wait to get back to their big screen TV. (I think their wives were far more interesting anyway, but that can only go so far, if you know what I mean.) Men - I think - are very poor at "getting together" with other men. I mean, it's kinda "gay" innit? At least, that's the engrained societal perception in our weirdly screwed-up American midset. Women have absoultely no problem calling each other up to bitch and moan, getting together to paint their toenails or working out nuclear physics equations, and do so at the drop of a hat. Men tend to be stoic and silent. But I tried. I had a hard time getting Mr. NASCAR to even go to a movie with me. "What is this - a date?"

Anyway, the problem was solved by joining a volunteer organization. I volunteered down at our PBS station, working on the tech-crew for pledge drive. It was blast, and I met a whole bunch of new and interesting people. That led to the local public radio station, a weekly radio show and a bunch of new friends there. I also jump-started the musical career I left behind to start a family - and met even more people in that world. I can't say I have raft of really close friends - but - a couple of close ones is good enough for me. And it doesn't work overnight. It takes years to develop worthwhile relationships. But anything worth having involves time and effort. Instant friends rarely turn out to be worth a damn. To top it all off - in volunteering your time - you are helping your community. And that's good feeling even if you are still lonely!

So in the words of James Brown: "Get Up, Get With It, and Get Involved."

Oh, yeah. And - Keep. It. Funky!
posted by Mattydread at 2:48 PM on June 28, 2006


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