Lonely, in a sea of possible friends. Credit unknown (Cunny 1988?)I seem to get my teeth stuck into particular subject matters and, like a big, deep-growling mastiff, try to tear it to pieces. Hopefully it’s not like an annoying and yappy terrier. Again, this is on the topic of immersion — does the lack of immersion in real life cause us to be lonely?

First some questions: Why, given an unprecedented number of ways to communicate and bond and share experiences (Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, forums…), do we remain resolutely bereft of companionship? Are we only ‘relatively’ lonely? Is ‘lonely’ a phrase that oldies throw around so much that the younger generations start echoing its sentiment, and eventually feeling it? ‘We don’t see each other face-to-face any more… using the telephone/MSN/Skype just isn’t the same…’

It isn’t the same — but because it’s different does that make it worse?

Are we only ‘lonely’ because we are told, as we guiltily hunch over our computer screens, we should feel so? Because we are told we must surround ourselves with friends and loved ones lest we don’t make it through the cold, hard winter nights? Is being a ‘loner’ bad, or just a wild break from the cultural norm?

Is spending most of our day behind a screen really a problem?

Some answers: It’s not that we meet relatively few people online — quite the opposite — but people seem to think that the bonds we make online are somehow less substantial because they stem from virtual places and virtual obligations. When I help someone find the right monster to kill in World of Warcraft, is it not the same as counseling a friend’s real-life woes in a real-life bar, ala Cheers? Can you be friends with someone you’ve never met face-to-face? If you tell a friend that you will be somewhere at a certain time, you’ll try your best to be there! If I arrange to log onto MSN and chat with a virtual friend, and then fail to show up, does that make me a bad person?

Right now, some (most?) of you are thinking: ‘no, real life overrules MSN’ — and I’m thinking that my friend on MSN is just as important as anything that might come up in real life. They’re virtual, I know. They are not substantiated or grounded in reality. There is no real-world repercussions if you fail to turn up. But they are still real people. It’s almost the epitome of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We [don't want to]/[can't] be friends with someone we’re unable to touch or feel; it seemingly takes a super-human effort to feel for someone you may never meet.

Fight Club, single-serving friend. Lonely. Internet Isolation.And that’s fine. Virtual, just-add-water apply-where-necessary friends have their purpose. But… this situation isn’t going to get any better. More and more of our interactions will be virtual. True, some of us do take our online relationships into real life; heck, online dating accounts for a huge portion of Internet usage! But what I’m talking about here is more endemic — it’s laziness. It’s being satisfied with vague, tenuous, barely-scratching-the-surface friendships — if they can even be called that. It’s the Fight Club idea of ‘single serving’ friendships taken to the next level: instead of making them on planes and trains, we make them while buzzing and zipping around the Internet and various social portals.

For some reason we are satisfied with ‘friendship lite’; instant gratification, none of the mess!!!

It’s a hollow feeling of satiation. Fed with juicy friendliness for just long enough — no more, no less.

Does being able to avoid the long-term difficulties of relationships (friendship) really have such an irresistible allure? By keeping everyone at a safe distance we can successfully deal with arguments or heartbreaks — because there’s no one to conflict with. These virtually-non-existent friendships enable us to focus on what we want to do. How selfish. We use the computer screen to screen real life, letting only choice morsels that lay within our comfort zone through.

Maybe we’ve always wished we could control how close people got to us, but until now we lacked a way to hold people at bay. This could just be a manifestation of self-preservation. Or just the pinnacle, or trough, of our Instant Gratification Society.

The scary thing is that this ‘thousands of acquaintances, but few friends’ lifestyle is going unchecked, unabated. It’s actually acceptable to merely tap your acquaintances for information or job offers and go skipping off. When one of my acquaintances asks ‘how are you?’ I simply answer ‘what do you want?’ — I don’t even feel rude; I feel like I’m doing us both a favour by cutting out the small-talk.

If contemporary society continues along this path, where real, tangible interaction will be limited at best and non-existent at worst, we need to start treating our virtual friends just as we would real friends. I’m not saying we should try to meet everyone that we know online, but we should try to nurture friendships. We must move back towards the friends-of-friends model and away from utilising and abusing a sea of faceless acquaintances. We have to start caring. Ick…

Ultimately though, because if anything humans are predictable, we won’t change. Technology will work its magic and dig us out of yet another hole. Before we know it we’ll be lounging in Star Trekesque Holodecks with holographic, computer-controlled projections of whichever acquaintance we feel like spending time with. Or we’ll simply get a robot friend; or better yet, a pet dog or cat. They can’t talk back and are very obedient.

Thoughtful Tuesday: Immersion in the real world
Making love to my computer


I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.