The end of loneliness

There's a video doing the rounds by Shimi Cohen, called the "Innovation of Loneliness". The thesis is that modern, internet-based social networking results in more loneliness. Impersonal communication displaces the intimacy of conversation. This, combined with the ability to tailor those communications to promote our self-image, results in us claiming "to have many friends while actually being lonely", while technology's promise of constant interconnectedness, causes us to constantly share our experiences in a desperate bid to not feel alone.

Not all of the claims stack up. For a start, sharing is not the only function of a social networking platform, the main one being, of course, to network. Connections are powerful resources that can fulfil a wide variety of ends - not just the selfish-sounding pursuits of "career, wealth, self-image, and consumerism" that Cohen emphasises, but also the intimate pursuits of friendship and romance. You might upload a selfie to Facebook or post on Twitter about your brand new shoes, but you might also use either of those social networks to arrange a drink with friends or, if you're lucky, even a date. Even then, some modern platforms like Skype facilitate the intimate conversations that Cohen fears we are losing. Rather than eroding social and familial connections, modern communication technology allows us to keep in touch with friends and loved ones when they are half-across the globe: there is now simply no excuse to never write home.

The truth is, we're usually well aware of which are our close or intimate friendships, and which are our wider connections. The benefit of having those connections though, is that they have the potential to turn into closer relationships, on a scale that is just totally unprecedented in human history.

Many of Cohen's claims are perhaps simply facts of human nature, rather than the fault of advancing communication technology. Was the age of letter-writing that preceded email much better when it came to wasting our time and energy "pursuing the optimal order of words in our next message"? Given the lengthy delay between replies and the added time and cost of writing and posting, letters were undoubtedly more stressful and time-consuming.

The internet for many people has freed them from the millennia-old tyranny of village gossip. It allows us to forge connections that then more intimate relationships with people who we actually like and agree with, wherever they may be, almost totally freeing us from geographical constraints. It even allows us to choose to whom we cater our self-image. Some of us may well spend hours agonising over our profiles, but it's a small price to pay to also spend far less time agonising about how Bert from next door, who never liked you, could seize upon any quirks and differences from the rest of the village, and make you a social pariah. You can now choose your own 'village' without actually having to move house, and it's no accident that social liberal attitudes are most prevalent among the most interconnected generation the world has ever seen.

Humans have always been lonely at times. The internet can make that fact more obvious, as we gain a remarkably open window into the everyday experiences of more and more people around us - but it is also the technological advance that has done more than anything else in human history to put an end to loneliness.