We’re Always Connected Online, and We’ve Never Been So Lonely

Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together” diagnoses the ironic isolation of our age

One night in 2009, Andrey Ternovskiy, a seventeen-year-old Russian high school student, sits at the old computer in his Moscow bedroom and builds an online chat site. He calls the site Chatroulette, after a scene in The Deer Hunter, a 1978 Vietnam War film in which prisoners are forced to play Russian roulette. The building takes two days. When he launches, in November, the site only has 20 users, but the number grows rapidly, and by December, 50,000 people are visiting each day. The following March, the site has 1.5 million users, roughly a third of them from the U.S.

Ternovskiy’s site works like this: a user logs on and “spins,” or connects with another user at random, somewhere in the world, and they have an exchange. The interaction is webcam-based. Sometimes you spin and find a person dancing. Sometimes they’re having sex. Each time a connection is made like this, a spinning roulette, and if you’re interested you stick around, watch them, talk to them, share something of yourself, too. You move on by hitting the “next” button.

Most users, about nine in ten, are men. One in eight spins will deliver nudity: someone exposing themselves, or engaged in a sex act, often masturbation. The number of monthly unique visitors has climbed steadily over the years and now hovers around the nine million mark. The game’s language has spilled over into real life, entered the lexicon. People talk about “nexting” someone as in: He’s been nexted, or: It’s time to next her. Chatroulette is where this term comes from.

I hadn’t heard of Chatroulette until recently. I was reading a book by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, about how we expect so much from technology, and not too much from other people. Turkle mentions the site there.

The book came out a few years ago, but I didn’t read it at the time because I didn’t read non-fiction back then, not really. I was happy to stay inside the various worlds conjured by imagination. How could facts compete with fantasy? To me, they could not. No contest.

But with the arrival of reality television and Facebook new categories were given to us, new ways to tell stories; a new kind of fuzziness introduced into the landscape of narrative. The lines between fiction and fact, between real and not began to blur. Things grew hazy, the Kardashians took charge of the world, and we suddenly found ourselves at the Apple store, camping out to purchase smartphones.

When the fog lifted, we emerged to find Donald Trump standing under a spotlight for The Apprentice, where he remained, fourteen primetime seasons in a row, cameras trailing as he rode his golden escalator up and down Trump Tower. His competitive reality show pulled in great ratings for NBC — yuge, you could say — and in June, 2015, there he was on screen again: Donald Trump, riding the escalator down into the gilded atrium of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the same one from the show, except this time to announce his run for office.

Cut to: me standing by the TV in my living room, watching him rest one palm against the Bible, take his oath, our new Number 45. I’m not sure if the Trump campaign, or his run, or the inauguration was what weakened my allegiance to fiction, but close enough. It happened around then. If it hadn’t been clear to me before, it was now. The truth was important and needed to be understood and broadcast and repeated and protected. Stories alone would no longer cut it. Ignorance was not bliss.

Before my Christmas flight to Florida, in the waiting area by the gate, everyone tethered to some device, I read Turkle’s book. I read about the ways technology has introduced new kinds of instability into our lives, reframing our approach to information, to communion, to community, to privacy, to ourselves: technology as an architect, but a shitty architect, one who knows the blueprints are weak, and at any moment the floorboard will give out, but who sells us the house anyway. This was how Turkle brought up Chatroulette: as an example of a shitty architect.

Some people saw the site as a game, others more of a dating service, which I found to be sad, but not really surprising. I’m no longer surprised by the weird and nebulous and shallow workings of the internet, by the farce and grime of it. On average, it will take a user no more than a few seconds before they hit the “next” button on Chatroulette. That’s the window of opportunity we’re talking about. There’s your shot at intimacy.

Being on the site, being fed audio, presented with a steady stream of faces and bodies means you can experience a sense of continual connection. But it’s a misleading connection in that when it ends, it leaves you feeling even more lonely than before. To escape the loneliness, you retreat into the screen again, looking for another hit of what passes for connection, and the cycle is reinforced. The isolation deepens. Turkle paraphrases Shakespeare in describing the cycle: we are consumed with that which we were nourished by.

To escape the loneliness, you retreat into the screen again, looking for another hit of what passes for connection, and the cycle is reinforced.

If we’ve allowed technology to engineer our relationships to this degree, there’s a price we must now pay. That price is a cheapening, reduction our new norm, Donald Trump our chosen leader, maybe the leader we deserve. Maybe because we’re so distracted and confused by the internet, we’ve failed the country in our role as citizens. Maybe because we’re overly enchanted with our screens, we don’t realize what our feeds provide is just simulation: not living, but the feeling of living. Maybe we fight for each other’s attention, try to type ourselves into being, preoccupied with the artifice of impression management, in order to avoid the reality that we’re all secretly very sad: lonely, and drowning in a sea of strange penises.

The flight to Florida is fine, everyone staring at their entertainment systems, screens embedded in the seat back in front of them. Fine. Normal. Just the way it goes. And then in the hotel, too, WiFi everywhere, even in the toilets, by the pool, the gym fully wired.

The first night I can’t sleep properly and find myself sitting in front of the closed Starbucks downstairs, hours before dawn, waiting for my family to wake up. I read my book. The section devoted to robot friendships makes me feel gloomy about the future, makes me realize I really don’t want a future of robot friendships, don’t believe robots are even capable of friendship. It makes me wonder how we got here.

When I was a grad student, I joined Facebook. The year was 2004 and everyone was in a fever about how great the site was, so I joined. Before this I had been on MySpace, and Friendster, but only briefly. They didn’t take. My friends and I did use AOL’s instant messaging service though, and I would compose “away” messages that usually incorporated a Notorious B.I.G. lyric, provided without context (for instance: “I’ve been smooth since days of Underoos!” or: “Only make moves when your heart’s in it!”). My handle was “oneluvv55,” yes, because of Bob Marley and yes, I now find it an embarrassing choice. This was the extent of my online life.

Facebook was different. I joined initially out of curiosity, but that soon gave way to a search for community, connection. At the time, the press Facebook received was positive, its narrative one of triumph: Social media would help us enhance friendship, provide alternative avenues for communication and commerce. Cyberintimacy could be offered as a solution to those who lived in solitude; online networks would buffer against loneliness.

I filled out my Facebook profile on my laptop, in my dorm room. The blank virtual real estate given to me seemed full of potential. What should I say? Who should I be?

Some of the questions were delicate. Facebook wanted to know about my “relationship status,” a tricky issue for a Muslim girl to address publicly, so I left it blank. “Favorite movies” were also tricky. Should I disclose my enthusiasm for the Peanuts Holiday Collection DVD box-set, or fool myself and others by listing a bunch of arty films? Arty but not weird arty. Arty but not too obscure.

I could already see a balance needed to be achieved, that this was an exercise in determining the overlap between what I actually cared about and what I wanted to project to the world. I understood what I was presenting wasn’t my true self but a construction, a persona: flat yet dynamic, a projective screen through which to express myself. I could tweak and edit my virtual selves over and again, sending them out to live parallel lives for me. The possibilities were endless.

Our first day in Florida, my family and I drive to the White Sands Buddhist Temple in a small town near Orlando, called Mims. The site, 30 acres, features three enormous granite statues of the Buddha during various stages of his life. The “Nirvana Buddha,” or Siddhārtha, the original Buddha whose teachings comprise the basis of most Buddhist practice, is my favorite among them. Depicted as a serene octogenarian, he is lying on his right side, ready for death. He is unafraid and welcomes death completely, smiling and at peace.

My family wanders off, exploring the grounds, and for a while I stand by the statue alone. A plaque tells me it weighs 40 tons and is about 30 feet in length. I stare Siddhārtha in the eyes, until it is clear he can see me too. When I pull my phone out, to capture our exchange, it’s already over. The moment has dissolved.

To build a life of happiness, we need to embrace and develop a life of noble virtues, a sign nearby says and I wonder how the Buddha would do with an iPhone. What would he make of all those disembodied penises being energetically masturbated on Chatroulette? I decide not to take Siddhārtha’s picture. His smile widens in the stone.

What would the Buddha make of all those disembodied penises being energetically masturbated on Chatroulette?

The second day of my family vacation, I wake up even earlier than the previous morning, and once again find myself in front of the Starbucks. I finish the book. Dr. Turkle has conducted hundreds of interviews, done fifteen years of research on technologically mediated social interaction, and her findings are bumming me out. We are online, she writes, connected as we’ve never been before, but we have damaged ourselves in the process.

Turkle cites a 2010 study of 14,000 college students that spans 30 years. The study found that since the internet became a thing — an unstoppable, addictive kind of force — young people have begun to exhibit a sharp, disturbing decline in empathy. They don’t care as much anymore, we don’t care, and our disinterest is attributed in part to the fact we’re on our phones all the time.

“An online connection can be deeply felt,” Turkle says, explaining the decline, “but you only need to deal with the part of the person you see on social media.” Purpose-driven and “plugged in,” we pay much less attention to those around us, to those actually physically in our lives, and our relationships suffer because of it. Compulsively, we turn our attention to the screen, and are confronted by a strange, fractured world comprised of parts: a world of sound-bites and performance and half-truths, of tits being flashed on a webcam.

Over time, there is a shallowing that happens. Ours is now a world of emotional distance, of performative social concern, of calculated wokeness, of believing the Finstas, the filters, the highlight reels, the catfishers, the “fake news” headlines we’re fed on Facebook. If some of us feel detached, it isn’t necessarily an aggressive detachment, Turkle says. It’s a way to cope. It’s because we feel so bombarded and numbed, we are shutting down.

Our Instagram feeds have become sites of longing and discontent, of constraint not freedom. Facebook has become a place of surveillance and data collection on the sly. Turkle says we now have trouble separating what’s real from what isn’t. Maybe we’ve even stopped caring what’s real and what isn’t.

But I don’t want to stop caring. I don’t want us to stop. I don’t think we can afford to.

On the flight back to Minneapolis from Florida, I sit next to a guy, twentysomething and in a track suit. He’s watching porn on his phone. Or at least, I think it’s porn initially, but a second glance reveals it’s a social media app. He scrolls and taps, a moving landscape: next, next, next. I see clavicle. The strap of a pretty lace bra. I see breasts. I don’t look again. I want to, curiosity pulls at me, but I tell myself no.

When the doors close and we are airbound, he begins texting someone at a rapid pace and for the duration of the flight. I wonder if he’s texting his girlfriend, or one of the women from the app, or maybe his mom. He is young but had lost most of his hair. He bites his nails and jiggles his leg. His snack choice is peanuts. He has an iPhone.

I wonder if he’s on Chatroulette. I wonder if he’s lonely. I wonder if he ever wishes he could reclaim his story, his attention, his “moral authority from cold-eyed corporations” (that’s Turkle) like Facebook, like Instagram; all the rest of them, too. I don’t ask him any of this, of course, don’t talk to him at all. We make eye contact zero times. It’s fine. Normal. Just the way it goes.

I wonder if he ever wishes he could reclaim his story from cold-eyed corporations like Facebook, like Instagram.

Somewhere over St. Louis, I glance at him and feel a swell of something. Compassion, maybe. Compassion, finally. It’s just a flicker, but it is there. Maybe I feel it because in him, I have seen part of myself.

To build a life of happiness, we need to embrace and develop a life of noble virtues. I’ve written this down for some reason, and I stare at the words now, my notebook on the tray table. I realize I don’t really know what they mean. What is a noble virtue anyway? It’s 2019 now, the year has turned, so what does a life of virtue feel like, look like these days? Whatever the answer, I’m beginning to think I won’t be able to find it inside the wires of my phone, underneath my compulsion to tap, tap, tap for what’s next, next, next.

We touchdown and moments later get the go-ahead to turn on our phones. Even before we get the go-ahead, before the cabin lights flicker on, they are out: strings of devices, glowing like little stars in the night. Strangely beautiful.

The young man next to me has a connecting flight. Thirty minutes, he says. Can he cut through? I smile, and he does too, and there is a moment of relation. I don’t know who he is, where he’s going, what he feels when he looks into his screen, what he’s hoping to find in there. I’ll never know. I step into the aisle, let him pass. I watch as he stands by the door, his body hunched, his eyes fixed and unmoving, his phone glowing and radiant against his palm.

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