Always connected, rarely together.
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Two weeks ago, I came across a Washington Post article discussing American loneliness, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.
The tl;dr: Americans are spending more and more time alone than ever before.
Some shocking stats from this piece:
Similar declines can be seen even when the definition of “friends” is expanded to include neighbors, co-workers, and clients. The average American spent 15 hours per week with this broader group of friends a decade ago, 12 hours per week in 2019 and only 10 hours a week in 2021.
On average, Americans did not transfer that lost time to spouses, partners or children. Instead, they chose to be alone.
No single group drives this trend. Men and women, White and non-White, rich and poor, urban and rural, married and unmarried, parents and non-parents all saw proportionally similar declines in time spent with others. The pattern holds for both remote and in-person workers.
The percentage decline is also similar for the young and old; however, given how much time young people spend with friends, the absolute decline among Americans age 15 to 19 is staggering. Relative to 2010-2013, the average American teenager spent approximately 11 fewer hours with friends each week in 2021 (a 64 percent decline) and 12 additional hours alone (a 48 percent increase).
These new habits are startling — and a striking departure from the past. Just a decade ago, the average American spent roughly the same amount of time with friends as Americans in the 1960s or 1970s. But we have now begun to cast off our connections to each other.
You might be thinking, "Of course we spend more time alone. We've been in a pandemic for the last two years. But this isn't just a pandemic thing. This trend started in 2013.
As Ward noted, those lost hours aren't being redistributed to increase our time with different individuals. We are experiencing a net reduction in time spent with other humans across all relationship types.
So where is that time going?
Social media is a likely culprit. While time spent with others in-person has been on the decline since 2012, daily time spent on social media has increased by nearly a full hour over the last decade.
This isn't a shocking revelation. What is your default, go-to activity when you're bored? You probably refresh TikTok and Instagram over and over again. You might scroll through Twitter for an hour (my personal vice). Perhaps you dive down Reddit rabbit holes.
And there goes our time.
In the premier episode of the second season of popular dystopic Netflix show Black Mirror, our protagonist, Martha, is heartbroken after the death of her husband, Ash. At his funeral, Martha's friend Sarah suggests an online service that can create a virtual "Ash" from his social media profiles, videos, and audio recordings. Initially skeptical, Martha agrees after discovering that she is pregnant.
As time passes, Martha grows more and more comfortable communicating with her late husband's chatbot over text and phone conversations, so she decides to test out the service's newest experimental stage: an android programmed to look and act like Ash.
Her excitement wanes as she quickly realizes that while her lover's doppelgänger looks and sounds like its predecessor, it isn't quite him. It is missing the little quirks and mannerisms, that made Ash... well, Ash.
Bringing back a digital version of the dead seems morbid. Dystopic. Absurd, even. And yet, social media has us embracing digital versions of each other every single day.
As a terminally-online Twitter aficionado, I have a lot of Twitter friends. Folks with whom I have exchanged tweets, follows, and DMs. Maybe we have collaborated on projects or hopped on Zoom calls, but we don't really know each other. We just know the Twitter version of each other.
And the version of ourselves that we share online is far from the "real" us. It's refined, premeditated. You can't truly know someone through their online persona any more than an obsessed fan can love a celebrity that they have never met. You only know the idea of them. There are limits to the depths of these online relationships; they must break through the imprisonment of our phone screens in order to grow.
Moving to New York has been awesome because I have been able to turn some of these Twitter friendships into real friendships.
A few examples: Liam Killingstad and I were in the same Twitter Spaces chat ~6 months ago, and we liked each other's content. We hopped on a Zoom call in June to exchange pleasantries (read: take turns making fun of cringe folks that we saw on Twitter), but our relationship did not metamorphose into friendship until he texted me in August, offering to swing by and help me move in. Since then, we have been boys to the fullest extent in NYC.
Nathan Baugh and I connected over Twitter as well, but it wasn't until we met for coffee in Madrid last summer that we hatched the idea of working together on an online course.
Nick Maggiulli was the first established finance writer to take interest in my work, but our relationship was little more than that of two bloggers who respected each other's content until we grabbed drinks in January.
Morgan Housel has been my benchmark for success in finance writing for years, but it wasn't until we met in person that I realized he was a great, genuine dude as well.
This list goes on and on, but as with the android in the Black Mirror episode, there are limits to the relationships that we can develop through online channels alone. You can never really *know* someone until you meet them in person and stare them eye to eye.
And don't think romantic relationships have been spared of this technological perversion either. When you're out with friends, or at a party, or sitting in a coffee shop, or walking through the park, and someone catches your eye, and you want to make an impression, you have to talk to them.
And in order to talk to them, you have to make yourself vulnerable. You have to risk something, the possibility of rejection, in order to establish that connection.
And then you have to engage in a real conversation with this real person; you have to introduce yourself and ask about their life. You have to take a genuine interest in what they have to say, and you have to open up about yourself as well.
You have to follow real, subtle queues such as posture, eye contact, and all those little mannerisms that make you wonder, "Is she in to me?" And then if you want this coincidental meeting to turn into something more, you have to be proactive and ask them on a date.
Dating apps, on the other hand, have reduced living, breathing humans with dreams, goals, fears, aspirations, and stories to binary decisions based on six curated pictures and three prompts stating profound opinions such as "This year I want to TRAVEL."
Serendipitous encounters have been replaced by cheap dating app dopamine.
And no, our preexisting relationships aren't safe from the digitalization of everything either. Yeah, you can direct message, text, call, or facetime your friends. But there exists a crucial layer of intimacy that can only be unlocked when you are face to face.
Those text messages, DMs, and phone calls can't exchange handshakes, high-fives, hugs, and kisses. They don't facilitate those 3-drink-deep conversations filled with back-and-forth banter that spark tears of laughter from everyone at the table.
Facetimes and phone calls are great for recounting the past and planning the future, but you can't experience the present through that fluorescent light on your screen. A five-bar, 5G connection doesn't create new memories, it simply recites old ones.
Social media is the pornography of human interaction. A cheap substitute for an authentic experience that injects you with just enough dopamine to keep you crawling back. And it works so well because it feels so real. As "social" suggests, when you see your friends' pictures and text back and forth with your family, it certainly feels like you are socializing.
And it's so damn convenient, the ability to engage with the world from the comfort of your couch, that we just can't stop. And day by day, year by year, our authentic, face-to-face interactions have been replaced by the convenience of the supercomputers in our pockets.
Relationships built on these digital channels may sound and feel real, but, as Sarah learned with Ash's duplicate, they're missing that *something* that makes them authentic.
And so, despite our ever-increasing connectivity, we are more alone than ever.
My suggestion: stop replacing real life with social media, and start using social media to facilitate real life. The metaverse might sound cool, but I promise you'll have a better time kicking it with your real friends.
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