I am astonishingly bad at being alone. I mean this in every possible interpretation of that phrase. I struggle at being comfortably single as opposed to being in committed relationships. I experience anxiety if I go a large portion of the day without talking to or interacting with someone else. With these things in mind, I have chosen to live in an apartment in the Plateau with four other people for the last two years. When I walk north along my street to return home at the end of the day and see a darkness emanating from the front window signifying that none of my roommates are around or awake, I feel dismayed. However, over the last several months, I have been trying to do more things that I find difficult, and one of those is spending time by myself. In doing so, I have come to appreciate the significance of time spent untethered from others. However, I have also confronted some of the harsh realities of attempting to be truly alone in the era of social media.
In his New Yorker piece “Farther Away,” Jonathan Franzen, one of the preeminent fiction writers of the last 20 years, discusses solitude as it manifests itself in literature, tracing its increase in thematic frequency with the rise of the contemporary novel. However, he also addresses solitude as he seeks to experience it in his personal life, noting how the explosion of the internet age has produced unique forms of isolation, ones previously inaccessible to the global populace which members of the smartphone generation are now uniquely privy to. Franzen’s argument does not share any intellectual territory with stereotypical anti-smartphone, Boomer sentiments. He writes about the internet as something which has transformed how human beings think of themselves as individuals. While the rise of individualism in the modern-novel created a similar mechanism, one that maps ‘the-self’ onto a narrative, the internet has taken that relationship and made it global, mapping ‘the-self’ onto an entirely digital world.
The ability to access an infinite network of millions of people at any time and in any location is a reality of contemporary life. One of the most overlooked ways that smartphones and social media have altered the course of humanity is by making the experience of true solitude nearly impossible. Validation is the foundation upon which all social media platforms operate. It feels powerfully satisfying to tell others, in words or pictures, what you might be doing or thinking at any given moment. Inversely, seeing into the worlds of your friends or acquaintances through the lens of Instagram or Facebook results in a gratifying feeling of inclusion, of being ‘in-the-know.’ Through social media, we gain shallow recognition of our own behaviors and we get to appreciate the sepia-filtered lives of our peers. Both dynamics make us feel special and both make us feel like we are not alone. And yet, one of the supreme tragedies of the 21st century is that we have begun to live in a world where people rarely feel alone, because feeling alone is so important. Without solitude, people do not have the opportunity to introspect and truly understand themselves.
One aspect of solitude I have come to value is the fundamental role it plays in self-development. Spending time in isolation, entirely unstimulated, initiates a species of reflection which is alien to more social circumstances. This kind of reflection, one in which we carefully examine our own identity, thoughts, and behaviors can be an intimidating prospect. However, introspection is the singular component that makes personal growth a positive process. It is the times where we find ourselves bored, restless, and perhaps even uncomfortable with being so solitary that we make significant discoveries about who we are and who we want to become. Social media is taking these discoveries away from us. I worry about becoming more intent on maintaining illusive linkages to others than understanding myself.
I am scared that the defining aspects of individuality are being stripped away, melted down, and reformed into a collective digital consciousness. I hope that as we move forward into a connection-defined era, we take the time to become reacquainted with solitude, and in doing so, come to know ourselves.