Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

3 thoughts on “Social Networks and Loneliness

  1. I have to add, though, that as a freelance journalist – for twenty years – for print media primarily, there was as much loneliness, more probably. The occasional letter to the editor would make me feel the love, but professional editors weren’t quick to provide feedback and pats-on-back; a check for a few ground, I’m presuming they felt, were adequate.

    I understand, and agree; from a personal level, from a need to use these social media for companionship alone, sure…a host of pathologies laid bare.

    I ride the fence here, and straddle tracks…

    This is another blog altogether, come to think of it….

    Enjoyed this.

  2. I’m beginning to see online activities in a similar light to TV. The new screen life inveigles itself deeper than the old one. It’s hard to say what an acceptable amount of time is on-screen, but there’s a lot of talk and even some research into online time and social media as addictions. Is it not possible that the feelings of loneliness that you got at grad school were created or at least exacerbated by connecting more online than offline? Online is convenient of course. Then again, so too is a microwaveable ready-meal. And aren’t they also pleas for companionship?

    1. Jeff, I think that comparison is apt. And I also agree that the loneliness was made worse by staying online. When I logged off, I almost invariably felt worse; there was something about it that was a bit hollow. I had to stay online to feel ‘connected’; hence the further spiral downward into quasi-addiction.

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