American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that he wanted to be his own answering machine so as to avoid the inconvenience of being interrupted. If he ran into an acquaintance when he wasn’t in a mood to chat, he wished he could respond: “Excuse me, I’m not in right now. If you would just leave a message, I could walk away.”

Many of us have probably felt like that at one time or another, for it’s a problem to which our busy lives and multiple modes of communication give rise. How much easier would it be if we could sometimes just simply disconnect?

Facebook provides a perfect opportunity to do just that. While it’s an easy, all-access platform that allows us to post photos and status updates, keep in touch with people, and dip in and out of the stream of human consciousness at will, it also allows us to keep people at a digital arm’s distance.

A rash of articles have recently debated whether Facebook fosters loneliness. At The Atlantic, Stephen Marche asserts “social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.” Eric Klinenberg, writing for Slate, disagrees, citing Claude Fischer’s book Still Connected that suggests that the quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are much the same as they ever were before social media.

Maybe the question is not so much whether Facebook makes us lonely, but whether it prompts us to refuse deeper forms of connection.

Of course, much depends on how you use Facebook. It can be great for strengthening existing face-to-face relationships. If you can’t get out and about so easily, Facebook is a godsend for it brings the village square to your virtual door. And for those in far-flung places, a Facebook message or a posted photograph is a small but effective way to maintain contact when you’re halfway around the world.

But even as Facebook encourages these kinds of connections, it equally fosters disconnection - particularly when it comes to face-to-face relationships.

Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, says we’ve “sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” As she writes in The New York Times, “we are together but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens.”

Facebook isn’t to blame for this, but it probably hasn’t helped either. For the social network makes it all too easy to browse peoples’ profiles, ‘liking’ something here, wishing someone a random ‘happy birthday’ there. With Facebook, you can dial in a friendship as actors disinterested in their movie roles might be said to ‘dial in a performance’.

And as novelist Kim Brooks was unnerved to learn, Facebook was fast becoming her own liberal “echo chamber” since she found herself promptly de-friending those whose political views she found disagreeable. Writing at Salon, Brooks conceded that she was unwittingly building a gated community in cyberspace, though she would never join one in the real world.

Facebook friendship, then, demands little of us. It allows us to screen out those who don’t share our political, religious, or cultural sensibilities. When it comes to friendship, it allows us to put in an appearance without really showing up.

So what do we do when our Facebook habits start spilling over into time spent offline? It’s increasingly common for my best friends and I to be constantly fiddling with our phones when we hang out, despite the fact that it’s already difficult to find time to spend with each other. Now, our attention seems permanently divided: we’re with each other physically but use our phones to take mental and emotional time-outs.

And according to researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory for Contemporary Design, our use of smart phones is reshaping our engagement with public space. Tali Hatuka and Eran Toch found that people get so caught up in the private worlds their smart phones create for them - with instant access to news, email, Facebook, navigation, and information - that they’re detached from their physical surroundings and less likely to interact with others.

“The communication of strangers was always one of the key roles of public spaces,” Hatuka says, “Because smart phones are supplying so many of these services, this kind of exchange with the stranger is just diminished to almost zero.”

In The Great Divorce, an allegory of heaven and hell, C. S. Lewis offers a startling picture of the latter. It’s not a burning lake of fire, a place of torment, or “other people” as existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre would have it. Rather, hell is a grey, miserable town whose denizens live in their own infinitely expanding suburbs because they just can’t get along with each other. This lonely crowd is left to drift endlessly apart into enclaves of self-imposed isolation - and in a perverted sense they kind of prefer it that way.

Lewis’ treatment of the subject may be fanciful but he gets right the difficulty of living with others, which may drive us to prefer our own company. For all their delights relationships are hard, time-consuming, full of compromise, and infuriating in all their messy glory. Community makes even greater demands on us, for it calls us to share our lives and resources with people we may not even like.

Such relationships seem like too much effort when compared to the friendly ghosts in the Facebook machine, or the solitary zones created by smart phones. It’s far easier for us, then, to remain in our technological bubbles even though they eerily foreshadow Lewis’ hellish vision.

Perhaps we don’t actually want to live this way: fobbing people off for the sake of convenience, as in Seinfeld’s wishful scenario, or simply ‘alone together’, as Turkle might say. In that event, we should take our cue from her: “Look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”

Most commented

30 comments

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    • Emma says:

      07:06am | 08/06/12

      I am not on facebook *dance*

    • Admiral Ackbar says:

      01:43pm | 08/06/12

      Neither, high five! Damn the man and so on.

    • acotrel says:

      07:07am | 08/06/12

      People on this forum have done a search then posted my identity.  This doesn’t bother me, I’m not paranoid. And any comment I make, I’m prepared to own.  But why would I be on Facebook which would give access to all my colleagues, family and associates ? I like to retain a small vestige of privacy.

    • Michael says:

      08:44am | 08/06/12

      You posted you own full name acotrel, it’s your e-mail address and you put it in the name space by mistake and Daniel removed it for you out of consideration.

      You’re irrelevant in most conversations regarding society, poitics, industrial relations, the sciences, technology, economics so on and so forth.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      09:46am | 08/06/12

      @Michael, nothing wrong with a man who has consistent opinions. Acotrel is rarely abusive or derogatory; unfortunately his influence has not rubbed off on you.

    • Michael says:

      10:39am | 08/06/12

      Nor you Scotchy, as in the little whine on the open thread yesterday re: Dash’s guitars….pot kettle etc.

      Selectively reading Acotrel’s comments to deny his passionate abuse of T.A. and anyone else that disagrees with Acotrel’s opinions does not elevate Acotrel to the status of non abusive.

      I note that you don’t refute the obvious, that, he is mostly irrelevant, good boy smile

    • Emma2 says:

      12:15pm | 08/06/12

      So it’s ok to passionately abuse JG consistently but not TA?

      There’s nothing wrong with Acotrel’s comments, he doesn’t say anything worse about TA than others say about JG.

      No one is irrelevant, and if you think they are - maybe it’s in fact you who is irrelevant good boy smile

    • TracyH says:

      10:55pm | 08/06/12

      I agree with Scotchfinger and emma2

    • Gregg says:

      08:30am | 08/06/12

      Just checked your Bio Justine.
      Are you moonlighting for Fb?

    • Philip says:

      08:49am | 08/06/12

      What is this facebook, of which you speak?

    • Scotchfinger says:

      09:08am | 08/06/12

      Social media provides the perfect forum to express things you normally could not without fear of being slapped, arrested, beaten up, have red wine thrown into your face or otherwise face vilification. What’s not to like? ICB!!!

    • Plain Jane says:

      09:13am | 08/06/12

      As soon as I see a Punch header like “We are all blah blah” my BS Meter starts to tune-in.

      Then I check the bio. 

      “Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for blah blah blah”

      Wow. Impressive or what!  BS Meter now rising briskly into High range.

      “Fellow” of just what, ezackly?  Check “Centre for yadayada” claim.

      Is it any sort of serious or recognised professional body? Quick google…errr….

      Wowsers!  BS Meter now steady at Max.  She’s just another kinda PR hack for mainstream religion, is all.

      The daily double, then.  Overblown headline + Overblown bio. 

      Yawn. Next.

    • Emma says:

      09:43am | 08/06/12

      Excercising your right of free speech there, he? smile
      You could have said that nicer and in one sentence.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      11:03am | 08/06/12

      Justine Toh is so hurt by your unkind comments that she is right now crossing ‘Plane Jane’ off her Christmas list. Looks like yet another Christmas Day of barbie (chops, prawns), grog (flavoured wine in a cask) and catching up with relations (drunken shouts, fisticuffs, ‘that old bitch next door is calling the cops again! I’ll effin kill her!’). I know, it’s as though I’m psychic!

    • Plain Jane says:

      01:05pm | 08/06/12

      “Nice”, eh. Yeah, right.

      Overblown headline + Overblown bio. That’s not nice.

      It’s just mediocrity.  Nothing “nice” about that.

    • Trav says:

      01:46pm | 08/06/12

      Don’t you love online commenters!

      Why bother reading the article and considering it’s contents, when you can trash at the author and rave on about your useless special talents (“BS Meter”) instead?

    • joshy says:

      05:40pm | 08/06/12

      You know it’s from an Oscar Wilde quote, right? Or is that too high-fallutin’ for you?

    • Plain Jane says:

      09:22pm | 08/06/12

      Two words hardly unique to Wilde.

      Or straining for effect, either, eh, “Joshy”.

      Oh, and its highfalutin, by the way, or hifalutin at a stretch. And yes, it is.

    • Brad Coward says:

      09:49am | 08/06/12

      I’m almost feeling sorry for myself !  You see, I am not a Facebook subscriber.  I telephone people.  I send photographs through the mail.  I still know how to press a pen to a piece of paper and produce written matter, so I send people letters.  I have a voice, so I speak to people.  Surprisingly, some people even speak and write letters to me.

      Yeah…so last century !  So darn proud, too !

    • egg says:

      11:37am | 08/06/12

      Wow, you must be SO darn proud! Because facebook stops me from doing any of the above. It’s like a handicap - you just automatically lose the ability to write with your hands, speak out loud or send anything via snail mail.

    • Sara Somewhere says:

      10:58am | 08/06/12

      *Cue smug superiority from non-Facebook users, all blissfully unaware of the irony of bragging on the internet that they don’t visit other parts of the internet*

      Use social media, don’t use social media, just don’t believe that either choice makes you a better person. I personally like FB, and I rarely find myself experiencing the problems most people complain about. Unless you lead some kind of double life, your online contacts are likely to be a good reflection of your offline ones. So, if your news feed is full of spite and spam, don’t blame the internet, blame your own poor taste in associates.

      Alternatively, you can unplug altogether. It might be cliche to say it, but some of my best friends are technophobes. Communicate your way, but remember that it’s a personal choice, not a moral one.

    • Emma2 says:

      12:20pm | 08/06/12

      So true. I haven’t had any issues with fb either. I meet up with more people face to face now because if it than I ever would without it.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:54pm | 08/06/12

      my kids will be banned from using the internet until they are about 18. The thought of having their happy, innocent little minds soiled by the crap that’s out there, makes me wanna sob into my hands.

    • Admiral Ackbar says:

      02:05pm | 08/06/12

      *Cue smug superiority from Facebook users, all blissfully unaware of the douchebaggery of bragging on the internet that they visit other parts of the internet on which they also brag* Et cetera.

      I’m off the grid, hardly smug about it. The smug superiority of people telling me their every move that no one really cares about is precisely why I removed myself from the attention seeking wank fest that is Facebook. It is cringeworthy the way people carry on about the minutia of their daily lives, plus the naivity inherent in most FB users that their info isn’t being used without their knowledge elsewhere is hilarious. It was the fact that my own personal information was no longer my own that was the sole reason I removed myself from that crap. But I agree with you Sara, I don’t believe that using it or not makes anyone a better person, I’m just tired of people who question my existence when they find out that I’m not on FB. Shock horror, I’m still able to function day to day without it! This actually surprises some people. Strange, strange people.

    • Greg says:

      11:25am | 08/06/12

      I don’t have Facebook. What’s the problem?

    • LostinPerth says:

      04:37pm | 08/06/12

      Don’t have facebook, don’t really care.

      I thought the headline would be a comment about how “stars” capture so much of the “news” nowadays. About how the media is obsessed with itself and its participants and seems to think that we all care about them, who they are sleeping with and what who said about whom. It is sad that what a generation ago was gossip is now “news” and we have a less aware population because of it. Ironic isn’t it,

      Perhaps it is because some people spend so much time worrying about themselves and there cyber-image that they have lost touch with the world outside their narcissistic sphere.

    • stephen says:

      06:56pm | 08/06/12

      What is wrong with letters on Facebook ?
      I handwrite letters, and I also use the electronic form, and it is mostly the former which requires a more personal tone as I tend to think and wonder more for the right word.
      (When I handwrite, and because it is a form of drawing, I use more of my right brain and this is good when I also want to imagine for the right word and expression.)

      The emphasis of Facebook is numbers : I can look up friends, school and Uni. mates and make an approach for communication.
      Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
      But I agree with the general purpose of this form, which is, I think, that the more we are talking to each other and the oftener we at least make a first approach at dialogue, the more likely we will not misunderstand each other, and the less likely, then, we are to hate.

    • Julian Gamble says:

      03:24pm | 11/06/12

      Hi Justine, I’m a big fan of your work - I wonder if there was a better CS Lewis quote that was applicable here - I don’t think the issue is mindless celebrity chasing but simple introversion:

      “Above all beware of excessive day dreaming, of seeing yourself in the centre of a drama, of self pity, and, as far as possible, of fears.” ~ C.S. Lewis
      (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis V1: Family Letters 1905-1931)

    • Tania says:

      08:13pm | 26/06/12

      Beautifully written, great thoughts…

 

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