The Lonely Hearts Club

“Only connect” was E.M. Forster’s refrain in his novel “Howard’s End.” But is our connectivity, especially online, making us lonely? Recent weeks have seen two prominent articles (and considerable web commentary) addressing why both our loneliness and our digital connectedness seem to be at all-time highs. The first article, by MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle, ran in The New York Times (and gave our Paddy Gilger a lesson in conversation here). The other, novelist Steven Marche’s “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” is The Atlantic’s cover story for May.

Each asks the same question at bottom: in a world where we’re more connected via technology than ever before, why are we lonelier than we’ve ever been? It’s a question that implicates not only Facebook and social networking, but also our constellation of constant contact: text messaging, BBM, Gchat, and Skype (to name a few).

The issue is huge, but I want to make two observations—and ponder what they might mean for making meaningful connection between people (and with God, too).

Facebook Like Button by Sean MacEntee on flickr

Not the same as a conversation

First, instantaneous communication tends to encourage superficiality over true connection. It demands little patience from us or others; both what we share and what is shared with us can typically be digested in a matter of seconds. “Friendship” and “relationship” require little more than “liking” a post on someone’s wall. And, Turkle writes:

These days, social media continually asks us what’s ‘on our mind,’ but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.

“Only connecting” isn’t enough to build a habit of introspection, which, like prayer and forming genuine relationships, takes time and patience. Our communication priorities are different: The Times quotes a 16 year-old (!) saying: “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Second, we tidy ourselves for the internet. As Marche quipped pithily (and correctly), “Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.” Anyone who’s spent time seeking that ‘perfect’ profile picture knows this. The self we put forward digitally is (usually) the self we want people to see (or the one we think people want to see).

A few different dynamics are in play here: first, how other people see me, second, how I want them to see me, and third, who I am in reality. On the internet, we can control the first, massage the second, all in the service of avoiding the third. But all three are less easily accomplished in real-life relationships, whether with others, with ourselves, or with God.

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