Note: This is a pretty long article (best read on a computer). It’s 3000+ words. 9+ hand-made charts and images. It’s also pretty depressing. I compare it to global warming. I suspect loneliness will define our future generations.
You can read criticisms of this piece here: reddit post.
I’m also making plans to solve loneliness. I want to make it easy for people to make a group (4+) of close friends. You can read (and possibly join) here: The future of /r/CommitToFriends – actually helping people make friends.
The article begins below.
“If a child falls out of society and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
If there’s one chart you should take away from this article, it’s this.
We face a bleak and lonely future (one with 0 friends), if nothing changes.
But first, a quick backstory.
(Feel free to skip. Some may find it helpful.)
Something sad you should know about me: I got hooked on the internet when I was 4 (1997).
“You must have been a huge nerd.” Yes, thank you for your sympathy. And you’d be right. You’d be right.
As you can probably deduce:
- I can be a mess, thanks to my upbringing. It’s only gotten worse…
- I was terrible with girls, even in college. I’m bad with them now (not terrible). So, that’s progress…
- I grew up with 0 friends as a child (age 4 to 10). Now, it’s 5 close friends, 10 friends, and maybe 20 or so I can say “hey”. HUGE progress.
For many dial-up kids like me, the internet has never been a place we “shared”. It has always been a place we lived. We “lurkers” know the pulsating loneliness of the web all too well. Message boards could have become my only social outlet (as the internet gives me a tendency to recluse).
I bring up my background because I came alarmingly close to becoming a permanently sad human. But I got lucky. It’s only because I’ve been forced to grow personally every year that I escaped my destiny of being a total recluse. It’s only from this growth that I have insight you can have shyness and anxiety, but also possess courage and confidence.
For the 82% of college students who are unemployed or underemployed and the 31% of students who don’t go to college, many of their growths may have ended. Because that’s what they tell themselves. There are plenty of studies that have shown the permanent detour that underemployment causes for young adults.
This is a 3-panel image that depicts me. It’s supposed to be a comedy break. (Though it’s not too funny.) Laugh! Because it gets pretty depressing after this.
This is a long article. It’s an introduction to the sad side of the web and the lonely trend of our future.
It’s about how today’s internet is mechanized to suck up 100% of your time, if you are vulnerable. How it is a clear unstoppable force that wreaks loneliness and total isolation.
I try to explain a bit of everything. The history, how it works, what we can fix. It’s split into sections with clearly defined descriptors in [brackets], so you can skip parts that do not interest you.
This article is intentionally conceptual, biased, and narrative-driven.
There may be parts (and concepts) you reject, and that’s fine. But this is written from the perspective of someone (me) who:
- had a lonely childhood (thanks to the internet)
- has lot of isolation habits that persist to this day (from my childhood)
- read a lot of internet comments from hateful communities (many now banned).
This build-up may sound like I‘m presenting the internet’s isolating effect as if it were like climate change. Yes.
Just like global warming, the potential impact can be so catastrophic, the damages for our children may be impossible to stop. Because we humans (and our children) may be too short-sighted to prepare. Too ill-equipped to cope and understand the pseudo-social gratifications that the internet provides.
This is not about 2050, this is about 2030. Which is when our youngest generation (those born after 2010) begin reaching adulthood and discover a world of crushing loneliness and little-to-no social support.
I realize what I write may sound alarmist. But the problem is we don’t know. There are no talks of how the internet (0 friends machine) works and no determination to understand the precise scale and nature of the problem. We should try to be safe than sorry.
In this entire piece, I want to provide a lens of the internet and how it dements the minds of those who are vulnerable.
I will make this case:
- Isolation has its own network effect.
- 50% of Generation Alpha (those born after 2010) will have 0 friends.
This is not a provocative case to make. It’s actually quite reasonable.
- In 2003, 2% of people claimed to have 0 close friends. (Gallup)
- In 2019, 27% of millennials claim to have 0 close friends and 22% of millennials claim to have 0 friends. (YouGov)
All I suggest is that loneliness is not correlated with digital trends; it’s tied to it. That the new internet and its story platforms (social media apps) are at least twice as engaging than the decade’s past and are now universally accessible. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d see a pick-up in the current trend to a lonelier generation.
Yet, we keep rolling the dice, even as we’ve seen troubling signs for the past 10 years.
A Tale of Two Cities
[How we’ve had an unhappy decade.]
What’s incredibly saddening is it did not have to be this way. We could (still can) have had a win-win society. Where everybody is optimistic for the future.
We’ve had a decades war against hate (racism, sexism, etc.), toxicity, misinformation, and economic inequality. We’ve seen little progress.
The past 10 years could have been a time of unity and upward mobility. Instead we’re in this mess where only 11% of Americans are happy with the US direction (Gallup, Jan 2021), 74% (New York Fed, Dec 2020) are underemployed, and 79% of youths feel alone (Ipsos, 2019).
I’ve echoed a similar criticism, which made me no friends (lost me quite a few actually), previously. But it’s so important that it bears repeating: If “to care” means to be deeply invested in a certain outcome, we as a society do not care.
If we did care, we would be surgical about societal problems. Like a surgeon, we would examine the patient’s whole case file and anatomy. Maybe seek second opinions. To determine exactly what caused the patient to be in such critical condition, before proceeding with the medical operation.
I am not a doctor or surgeon, clearly. I was a lonely child and I am a walking internet historian.
Though if we did play surgeons, I suspect upon examination, we’d see we live in a tale of two cities. We’d see the extremes of the “well-connected” have resigned to total social conformity and the extremes of the totally isolated have resigned to total hate.
Both sides would benefit from bridge building. It’s a choice we should make.
A Great Divide
[How we got into this unhappy decade.]
In the United States (and I suspect most of the world),
The most well-connected are often the most powerful or the most compassionate.
- These most powerful folks (eg business leaders) will choose willful ignorance to make pandering easy.
- These most compassionate (social activists) are often those who leave on uncomfortable criticisms, because it offers no safe space.
The most totally isolated are often hate or hopeless incarnates.
- These hate incarnates start off with no meaning and no identity, until they find one in populism or other counter-social movements. Often, they’re “proud boys“.
- These hopeless incarnates are quiet. Sad. Nothing happens. For decades.
We would not recognize these totally isolated. Because how would you know they exist? Often, their humanities are only recognized in statistics. Whether it be from drug overdose, suicide, hate crime, conspiracy, or mass shooting.
Because here’s the thing: isolation (thanks to the internet) is an ultimate culprit of extreme fringe behaviors. It’s a perpetual spawn and stomping ground of all unimaginable acts and social justice problems. When you have no one, nihilism and hate can be the only meaning in life.
Unfortunately, the problem is much more difficult than I suggest. I suspect those who have fallen out of society often don’t want to be saved. The modern web and apps have become so alluring, that the want for companionship is infrequent. The internet meets all one’s needs in a perverted way.
There’s a lot of broken households in the US. Many with partners or children who may seem okay, but are mentally withdrawn. The internet offers shelter for those detached from reality.
For the already-very social people with many friends (eg tech workers, social justice activists), we benefit massively from the internet and social networks. But for many in the 80% of America, it’s crippled their social support.
[How the internet permanently changes a child’s social habits and destiny].
“Why is it so hard to make friends?”
As mentioned, I grew up with a childhood (age 4 to 10, 1997 to 2003) that included 0 real life friends. I rarely felt lonely though. Thanks to my computer, I had internet forums and video games, thereby I never felt the urge to make friends. This was not isolation unique to me. I sat at the “dial up kids” table in elementary school. No one talked.
I’ve pondered on this and why I’m still such a nerd. Even when I started work at Google (and my anxiety and confidence got better), I got invited to hangouts and parties, but I almost always declined.
I think for many who grew up with the internet as their only friend, it ends there. For the 10M+ (22% of all millennials) with the internet as their only friends, it ends there.
There’s no network and no “network effect”. No friend to introduce another friend.
Some can adapt, some get lucky (like me), but many won’t. And these are the people (which includes children) we need to help most.
Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a fine place to cope 99% of the time. But the 1% can really suck.
These blue spikes are what I call “loneliness emissions” in the context of Global Isolation.
If it seems weird (“You want social interactions only every few months?”), it probably means you’ve had a happy healthy life. But this chart pretty much matches my childhood and grade school years. It’s not too different today. (I meme and video call a few friends daily, but nothing too wild.) This is how millions of people live, by necessity if not choice.
I suspect 10s or 100s of millions in the US and globally experienced something like my childhood. These people became depressed and isolated themselves from all contacts.
For them, the internet became their only friend. And after prolonged extended exposure (10+ hours/day, 7 days a week for months) they realize there is little “reversion to the mean” when it comes to internet usage. The world will reopen in 2021 and 2022, but they won’t come out.
Shokunins – On the Endless Pursuit of Being Your Best Friend.
[What social apps actually measure.]
There’s a word in Japanese, “Shokunin”, that literally translates to “craftsman” or “artisan”. But more aptly, it describes a philosophy and a way of life. An endless pursuit of perfection.
These social media companies (eg TikTok, Instagram, YouTube) are all “Shokunins” in their own respect, but not exactly as you may think. Analysts and journalists talk as if they are fighting for your eyeballs (attention). But the big picture is a little more complicated.
While they maximize for engagement (time spent on screen), they actually optimize for lifetime value.
We can think of it as follows: [Lifetime Value = Engagement x Returning Visits].
What’s key to understand is that these companies are not trying to send you the best videos. They are trying to engage you with the best stories (personalities whose journeys you can follow). Because humans, we don’t have “video needs”. We have social needs. This is consequently quite pernicious, though unintentional.
These new social media apps are “Shokunins”. They are on an endless pursuit of being your best friend.
The Uncanny Valley of Friendship
[Why “Digital Friends” seem so real, but are not.]
What are friends?
- To be friends is to play. It’s through genuine fondness and authenticity, friendships are formed.
- To be friends is to share. It’s through shared difficulties and experiences, friendships are formed.
- To be friends is to commit. It’s through loyalty, good times and bad, that friendships are formed.
We humans are all social animals. But the internet has deranged our ideas of friendship. There’s this uncanny valley now, where “digital friends” can seem so real, they offer the illusion of real friendship.
Illusion of play: The new digital mediums optimizes for an endless supply of connections. At any minute, you can experience the creativity, authentic, funny, personable people. Somehow, these apps surface exactly what you want. (Which we know is no accident.)
Illusion of share & commit: We get busy, we get annoyed, we don’t always have time. Following “digital friends” and their journeys have the ability to transport us to a better place. We stretch our listening and loyalty muscles as we hear these creators’ vulnerabilities and failures. All without the annoyingness of an overly dependent real friend.
Since I was 4, I could spend entire days on the internet. I could be friends with anonymous goons on the internet. They were repugnant, but that’s all I needed.
Over 20 years later, my internet use has stayed the same, but the storytellers have gotten much better. That’s concerning.
Parasocial Activities: No New Friends
[Why “digital friends” can feel as if they’re all you need.]
Parasocial refers to any 1-to-many experience. It’s the digital friend speaking to you. It is a word I suspect that will go on and define this decade.
Because what these parasocial relationship offers are in many ways much better than what a real friend can offer, as I’ve noted. But their very nature, it’s actually impossible for the relationship to match that of a friend, though it can feel that way for a long time. The inherent asymmetry in communication means the personality can “confide” in “you”, but you cannot “confide” in the “personality”. The commitment lasts so long as you’re interested in “them” which can be years.
The key point here is their immediate similarity. They initially provide all our social needs, such that we don’t care to foster more (non-digital) relationships.
Dunbar’s number describes “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”. The supposed limit is 150.
The internet is a place to constantly keep tabs on your “digital friends” and constantly queue up new “digital friends”. (Up to 150!) The internet is a place that always provides reprieve from our own mind.
[A life without social support.]
Using the internet for “digital friends” seems innocuous, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. The bigger picture is an entire ecosystem and the longer-term picture can be dystopic for individuals and society. Because while humans want friends, they demand meaning. They search for ideas, ideals, and identities. And while the internet offers a safe space to grow, it’s often used as a bad place to cope.
What’s so dangerous about the internet is how it can exploit human nature and pervert the mind. It slowly isolates, without the host noticing. People may come hungry and self-motivated (maybe try to learn to code, design, or job search). But years can go by, before they find themselves in a worse place. It’s all a blur.
In our brave new world, everyone still needs social support, but always at the wrong time.
“Simp” is perhaps the most popular insult on the internet, used to describe a man overly desperate for a woman. More covertly, it’s used to imply a man pays money to girls on Twitch or OnlyFans, in exchange for the slightest bit of attention. “Simp” (when used as an insult) was banned on Twitch late last year, December 2020. The overuse of “simp” is a greater symptom and a self-deprecation of something we all know: societal loneliness.
I bring this up to again repeat the antidote: friends. Without social support, a growth mindset may be impossible.
To this day, so many continue to feel shackled and powerless to find better ways to live even after ten years. I’ve seen too many accounts cataloguing a decade of hate (to the self, to others, and to the system).
Sustainable Hope Sources?
[A Look for Solutions]
Truth is, I don’t know any good long-term solution. I don’t know how to fix this loneliness epidemic or how to prevent future generations from being less lonely. Nobody does. I’ve waited years to hear solutions and solutions never come. Yet, it’s key to solve so many of society’s ills.
This is not a money-grab for another mental health startup ($100/hour virtual sessions). And not a call for social media regulations. Journalists (eg Kara Swisher at New York Times) are often so cluelessly provocative, they demand prescriptions which would set society back.
My precise goal for this article is to shine a light on this issue which may be generation-defining, so we can start looking for different vectors (“ways to solve problems”) on this issue, which could also aid social progress. (It’s already quietly defined the past 10 years, all without most people knowing.) We need smart people with more resources discussing this issue.
Pessimism and Optimism
I’m quite optimistic… for those who are already successful.
But for those who get left behind, it’s hard to be positive. How can I be? When people with power and voices are still blind to the problems.
Somehow, we find ourselves in a topsy-turvy world where:
- The successful (~10 friends) people in society (eg tech workers) arguably get paid too much to care, and recognize the real troubles in society. Well-paid yuppies (including myself) already feel we understand everything. “How do you wake up that which is already ‘woke’?” It’s very difficult.
- The most successful (40+ friends) people in society (such as business leaders and compassionate social advocates) in society are incentivized to pretend the problems do not exist. They have a lot they can possibly lose, including their popularity and identity.
- The unsuccessful (1-2 friends) often do not want help. So many of these folks have never been taught discipline or structure in their lives. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of trying to gain digital skills (like coding, graphic design), but succumbing to the internet’s distractions. Thus, seeing no progress in their lives.
- The most unsuccessful (0 friends) may have already passed the point of no return. They already have their identities tied to hatred and hopelessness.
We all need identities, even one as hateful or hopeless. That’s the story millions that lonely people tell themselves.
I’m definitely generalizing. Please remember my earlier point: “This article is intentionally conceptual, biased, and narrative-driven.” But you need to see what is true for many.
The time to speak about this should be now. People need to understand the toxic effect the internet has had for millions, and how it is only getting worse. We should continue to celebrate Diversity & Inclusion, but not forget about the other invisible millions left behind.
Of course, it’s been 20+years of worsening loneliness, with no progress.
It may take an entire friendless generation to shout their pains, before we finally understand how badly we’ve failed them.
Reducing the Loneliness Footprint
“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”— Tom Wong (@tomwongxyz) July 14, 2015
– Marina Keegan
The best thing you can do for yourself and others is to make sure you always have a healthy mind. Maybe blast out emails or Facebook messages to old friends and acquaintances.
As for me, I have my door open to everyone (tomwong.xyz/meet) for this very reason. So anyone who wants social support (or any sort of human interaction) can get it.
I’m going to maybe try and run an experiment to see if there’s a way to speed up the friend-making process and make it more of a science. If you want to help and possibly participate, please sign up using this Google Forms.
My efforts will certainly fail. But failure’s fun! (So long as you have the right mindset.)