In response to the recent Atlantic cover story “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche, sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests the data is much less clear than the cover story suggests.
This debate suggests two things:
1. We need better data on loneliness and how it affects people. There are multiple ways that this could be done but perhaps we need a methodological breakthrough. I’ve been thinking lately that we need better ways to know what people do when they are alone. Now, we rely on after-the-fact questions rather than observational data. If we ask the same questions over time (such as the famous one about how many confidants respondents have), we can track changes over time but this also requires interpretation. How much loneliness is acceptable and “normal” before there are adverse effects? Does the importance or effects of loneliness change over the lifecourse? Is loneliness mitigated by other social forces?
2. Without this more conclusive data, I think we end up having a proxy battle over two warring American schools of thought: communitarianism versus individualism. This dates back to the early days of the American experiment. Who is more virtuous, the cosmopolitan city dweller or the self-reliant farmer or frontiersman? Should we all live in urban areas or preserve small town life? Should the government help people get an equal shot at success or help defend people from each other? Should religion be expressed in the public sphere or should it be comparmentalized? Several well-known social science works in recent decades have tackled these divides including the 1985 classic Habits of the Heart. Both Klinenberg and Marche seem to bring these ideological approaches to their arguments and then look for the data that supports their points. For example, Klinenberg admits that loneliness will be felt by those who live alone but this is desirable because living alone allows for other good things to happen.