Facebook vs. Alone Time

A week or so ago I finally gave in and allowed my friends to convince me that I really, really needed to go on Facebook. It has been fun - I've gotten back in touch with some old friends I'd lost track of; I've enjoyed reading tidbits about the daily goings-on of my friends' lives; I've tried to figure out what the heck L'il Green Patch is all about.

Yet it also seems to me, in some ways, like a nightmare. With email, I log on, read messages, respond, delete, I'm done. With blogging, I log on, write a blog post, post it, check comments to see if anything is languishing in moderation, I'm done. Facebook, however, seems like an endless enterprise. There's always something you could be doing or reading or checking or updating or commenting on. All your friends are there, posting their pictures, typing in their updates, leaving comments on this and that - it seems rude to turn away, to stop reading and interacting. It's like being a bee in the hive and saying, "hey, I need my space!"

So I guess it was perfect timing when this week's Chronicle showed up, with an essay in the Chronicle Review titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz.

Deresiewicz begins:

What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge -- broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider -- the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves -- by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude...

...The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

Once I joined Facebook, I became giddy with delight as my friends list expanded (even as I realized I don't even come close to the mega-friends lists of the real pros). I kept reporting my latest friends count to Mr. Z, who kept asking "But what's it for?" I have struggled in the past to not pay too much attention to the Google Analytics made available to me by ScienceBlogs; it's too easy to obsess over how many people are, or are not, reading my blog. What does it matter how many Facebook friends I have, or whether my blog is read more or less than some other blog?

Deresiewicz talks about boredom and loneliness. He says that "the great age of boredom" began with television. Having nothing to do isn't necessarily a bad thing; boredom is the "negative experience of that state". Television helps keep us from learning how to use and enjoy our lack of occupation. We thus become terrified of being bored, so we turn on the television to keep from being bored.

Similarly, solitude is not necessarily a bad thing; loneliness, Deresiewicz says, is our grief over the absence of company, and

the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn't call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn't always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn't always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

This is a bad thing, because we need solitude for inward journeys, to explore ourselves, to maintain our integrity. You can't go on a vision quest while chatting with your 367 friends on Facebook. Can you really form a solid idea of your own views and opinions while you're Twittering and texting?

Deresiewicz is not saying (and neither am I) that social networking is an inherently bad thing. Obviously it enables people to connect who might not otherwise. And for someone like me, without a formal work environment, social networks provided by things like blogging and Facebook help keep me in touch with things that really matter to me, keep me from being really isolated.

But when I sit here in my little attic study, surrounded by my books, with the sunlight pouring through the windows and the cats sleeping contentedly on the floor, do I really need to keep Facebook and the forums and my email and three other browser windows open so that I can constantly be checking in with...someone...to see if...something...is going on? Perhaps part of the trouble I've had with writing blog posts lately isn't all due to my preoccupation with worries about my mother. Perhaps it's that I can't disengage my mind from the web long enough to think in a sustained manner about what I want to say.

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Perhaps it's that I can't disengage my mind from the web long enough to think in a sustained manner about what I want to say.

What a wonderful thoughtful post Zuska. I've wondered about some of the same things when I am hit with writer's or thinker's block. (nb: I have six browser windows open + excel) I hope your blogging mojo comes back, whatever it takes.

In my opinion, it's not just Facebook vs. alone time, it's everything else vs. alone time as well. Not only do people today want to constantly be going out and doing things with their friends or acquaintances -- when was the last time someone said to you, "No thanks, I'm going to spend the evening at home reading a book"? -- they're also constantly at the beck and call of people who telephone them or send them text messages. Whatever happened to taking the phone off the hook or turning your cellphone off, for example? I know far too many people who find it impossible to not receive that telephone call before the second ring or to not read that text message within a few seconds of receiving it.

Social networks have simply taken what was already there to the next level. And it's particularly bad for people who are connected to the Internet all the time because they often don't (or can't) say something like "Oh, I check my e-mail and social networks only twice a day when I connect to the 'net."

I suspect this almost manic need-to-be-connected-all-the-time behaviour occurs because people are scared to be alone and because they equate being alone to being lonely (or somehow socially inept). Today's media doesn't help either because film and television tend to suggest that the only way to have fun in your life is to be hyper-socially active.

Either way, it's an interesting shift in how we -- and future generations -- are, and will be, living our lives and interacting with each other.

I agree. I like Facebook, but I don't use it very much. I greatly value my time playing with the dog or reading to my daughter, or brushing the cats. But, my oldest daughter friended me, and then people commented that there I was and I didn't have any friends, yet, so what could I do? Ah, the pressure, the pressure.

Perhaps it's that I can't disengage my mind from the web long enough to think in a sustained manner about what I want to say.

Funny, I have the opposite problem. Even though I'm constantly reading the web, I don't blog because I'm afraid that what I have thought up isn't sufficiently well-formed to bother wasting people's time with. Modern web and blogger culture celebrates the mediocre, the amateur, and I'm plagued by a gnawing fear of imperfection.

Great post, Zuska. Though it should be a measure of how sick I am that I saw your post title and went "oh, I need to check my Facebook today!" Yikes.

But it's true, I've noticed the more I'm ON the internet, the more I NEED to be on the internet. The harder it is to sit down and read a book, I feel like I need to constantly check email, check the blogs, do things. This has been decent for me in terms of productivity (at least blogwise) by giving me topics, but I have in some ways lost time REALLY to myself. Very thought-provoking.

Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. Facebook is a fun way to connect with old friends, but is just one more total time sink on the web. And I do wonder if young folks today (do I sound like an old fogey or what?) know how to entertain themselves without electronic devices.

Yes, I saw the article and found it good. I personally use checking e mail, checking my blog stats, going to a favorite site, etc. as a reward for doing something on my to-do list. I do a chore or a step on my day's work, and I get to connect briefly via the Internet. I use a lot of mind control to keep myself on track. For more about that see my ThePowerOfBoredom.com as a little reward for doing one item on your to do list.


I've been having similar thoughts lately. I have a love/hate relationship with facebook. I love it because I get to stay in touch with people who are important to me and that I would not otherwise communicate with, at least not very often. But I also find that I am exhausted after I have been on it for a while. Perhaps it's my introversion, but I feel a sense of relief when I'm done, turn off the computer, and grab a book or just stare out the window. What I find weird is that, even though I often feel a sense of social overload while on facebook, I have difficulty signing off of facebook, and sometimes have urges to get back on and see what people are up to.

I do think that this constant connectedness has to alter our perceptions and cognitive processes somehow. I think it would be an interesting experiment to drop a facebooking, text-messaging college student into a nineteenth century farming community to see how he/she fairs without electronic communication.

Fantastic, thoughtful post. I find that I encounter this form of behaviour a lot on train journeys. When I'm on a long train journey I use the time to read, perhaps listen to music, but also a lot of the time to just stare out of the window and think about things. However, I see other people getting on the train and they seem to suddenly panic at the idea that they might have nothing to do for a while. So they immediately get their phone out and begin yammering away to someone about nothing in particular for the entire journey (subjecting the rest of the travellers to their one-sided conversation of course). Then they hop off at the next stop, presumably safe in the knowledge that they are still valid human beings and haven't had part of their personality removed as a result of not communicating with anyone for half an hour...!

This is a fabulous post. I've noticed in the last year that I seem to have lost my abilities both to be alone and unoccupied as well as to concentrate on a single thing for an extended span of time - those browser windows and their updates keep calling to me. This is definitely a good explanation of why disengaging is a good thing.

I stay waayyy off the grid with stuff like that. It's invasive, it's a time waster, and it will be there after I'm dead. 'Nuff said. If my friends really want to talk to me they can actually email or *gasp* phone.

"Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind."

By offthegrid (not verified) on 31 Jan 2009 #permalink

E-mail and blogs are more than enough internet distraction for me. Too much, in fact. My students love Facebook, and check it constantly, and that alone is reason enough for me to avoid it.

The Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge will air an episode on solitude and loneliness, entitled "Alone Time", this week. One of the segments features Robert Kull, who spent a year alone on an island off the Patagonian coast - his book on his experiences might have too much spiritual woo for my tastes, but I'll give the TtBoOK program a listen.

I have a Facebook that I check once a day. When I first started with it, I was on it constantly because, as has been said, there are a million things you could be doing on Facebook at any given time. I decided it was too much and now only use it to look at pictures and keep in touch with people I haven't seen in a long time.

In terms of alone time and reflection, taking time to solidify one's beliefs and character, I find that blogging is perfect for doing just that. Every time I write a blog I am using the medium to express my beliefs and character to others. Before the internet, I would sit and write for hours - journals, poems, short stories, whatever. The only difference now is that I am using a keyboard instead of pen and paper and that other people are able to read and comment on what I write.

I can't imagine that anyone has ever "really" spent time in true solitude and reflection. What does that entail? Sitting and staring at the walls? If my internet were to go out, I would probably put on some music and sit and read. I no longer own a television but I will watch shows online occasionally - not out of boredom, but because I enjoy them.

To me, reading blogs is the same basic activity as reading a book or any other written media. Sure, there are blogs that consist of not much more than "today I took my dog for a walk and blah blah blah" but those aren't the blogs I read. I am a psychology student reading blogs written by engineers, biologists, neuroscientists, doctors, chemists, and myriad other disciplines that I would not connect with in any other format. I have learned about so many things I would not have been exposed to otherwise just through reading blogs. For me, blogging and reading blogs is as much an intellectual activity as reading anything else.

Though I admit, it is definitely an addiction.

Nice post, Zuska. I am often tempted to cancel my Facebook account. Although I'm not obsessed with it, it's turned into some kind of monster where I log in and there are all of these updates about people that I barely even remember knowing. I don't care what these people are doing! I'm thinking of going through my friends list and eliminating everyone except the people I actually care about.

What I find interesting about the blogging/facebook/etc culture is that it actually pulls me away from real-time, quality interactions with the people I love in deference to reading about people that I don't even know. About 4 months ago, I decided this was a problem, and I've significantly cut back on my blog-related activities. And my real-life relationships are better for it. :)

Sorry I've been away so long (mom stuff again) but I think I got rid of all those turkish spam comments now...thank you all for your very thoughtful comments on this post!

I agree with everything Ameel said. It's not just Facebook, it's this idea that you have to be connected to *everyone you know* all the time or else. Being with other people = instant fun! In my town this attitude is pretty terrible, and people will literally call someone they just met a "friend." The instant trust thing is at the core of a lot of our issues with campus crime, especially sexual assault. If you are a woman and don't immediately jump on the opportunity to get to know any guy who shows interest...well then however will you enjoy the college experience?

I hate Facebook and all social networking sites...it's a pretty strong phobia of mine. I realize that makes me less of a cool, connected college student. :*(

#11 and #20 are still spam....

I've been on Facebook since the beginning. I explored it and studied it. I spend minimal amount of time on it, though. I get e-mail notifications and perhaps once a day go there to click on all the "Ignore" buttons for all the invitations.

But every now and then I get useful piece of information there, or an invitation to something I want to attend. I also use it to monitor what my kids are doing there.

It is also nice to reconnect to some people I have not heard of in 20-30 years and see what they are doing.

And I use it also to promote myself, my blog, my events, and my employer - pure PR, which sometimes works (as I can see from comments, traffic coming from there, etc.).

One of these days I need to write a post about the way Facebook changed over the years, and how different age-groups use it very differently (short: youngsters for social networking, oldsters for business networking, and now recently the non-tech, non-business oldsters also for social networking).

I also use Facebook sparingly. I was worried about it gobbling up tons of time--but I find that I just quickly skim the front page every couple of days--about 2 minutes worth. What is gobbling up my time is reading blogs and blogging. I was very involved with a chatroom and associated boards for a few years and when I left I found that I was spending a lot more time in 3d and irl with my own family and on my own. Now reading blogs and writing my own (even though I'm not at all prolific) has gotten me back at the computer a lot. Too much. I don't know what to do about it honestly.

I don't see the point of Facebook beyond looking up and getting back in touch with people you've lost touch with. The incessant chatter that goes on every minute of the day...I've long stopped looking at that. I really don't care if so-and-so just took this or that quiz or if they updated what they are doing this minute.

Another thing I don't like about Facebook is the culture of how everyone (or most people it seems) try to put on a facade and keep up with the joneses. For example accumulating as many 'friends' as possible to make it look like you are super-popular or super-well-connected. Or posting a million and one pictures of their babies. Since when was that something that people wanted EVERYONE in their address book - no matter how distantly connected you are from them - to know and see?