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I’m not one to buy into the modern fad of calling everything an epidemic or a crisis. The media uses alarmist words like these to grab our attention and inject fear directly into our eyeballs at every turn, but one proposed epidemic did catch my attention: an epidemic of loneliness.

In October 2013 a survey of adults showed that almost 50% of all UK adults feel a degree of loneliness; ranging from mild and some very acute. The thing most striking about these numbers is that it affects younger adults (18-24), as well as older adults who we more traditionally associate with the loneliness that comes with old age.

lone side 1I’m not here to grandstand about the evils of social media, and I’m not going to shake my walking-stick at the sky and lament the days when we took the wooden tram to the talkies. I’m just here to share a feeling I think a lot of us have experienced as our lives turn increasingly busy and our social time becomes increasingly compressed. Social media is a quick snack of interaction, it is the rushed half of a cereal bar of socialization we eat running out of the door. Like cooking a meal from scratch, or sitting down and reading a book,  face to face socializing has increasingly become a casualty of our workaholic society. The problem is, like living on snacks, it has diminishing returns and shouldn’t be done long term. We’re becoming malnourished in terms of human contact.

The more we interact, the higher the noise level and the less these interactions mean to us. We don’t experience things on a human level anymore, it becomes a blur of noise. The human mind fixates on negative comments over positive ones oft times, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook make that process even easier as we skim past a hundred neural or supportive posts and focus on the one negative one. We can also become quickly numb to validation online. As time goes on, some need more and more reinforcement to keep feeling the same level of support.

Social media gives us a taste — a little 2D slice — of human interaction and at its worst it can make us feel worse when we are isolated. It reminds us of the real experience, but doesn’t deliver the full thing. It’s a cock-tease for real, meaningful, and engaging interaction and it leaves us wanting more.

We only half-read posts online, we skim by, we lazily browse, and in the shuffle it’s easy to miss cries for help. These platforms were not designed to hold a long-form conversation, and in the case of Twitter it is actively designednot to — Twitter is limited in depth by design. This can lead those looking for deeper conversations or more concentrated attention feeling rejected when that doesn’t come.

The design of social media also feeds into feelings of inadequacy as we view the sanitized projected lives of others from afar and attempt to compare that to our own imperfect situations. Platforms like Facebook can make you feel like you are missing out of so much, or that you are on the fringes of a social group — pushed aside and less engaged than others. The thing is, an entire group can feel this about each other regardless of the reality of the situation. On social media we can all be lonely together.

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There is a real stigma attached to loneliness online, and a lot of negative internet stereotypes revolve around people who lack social contact or are in some way alone. Some would say forever alone.

As always, a little bit of meme magic gives us a more astute insight into our shared feelings of online loneliness than we would like to admit; the contorted, tear-stained grimace of “forever alone” with its hollow smile and lumpy features express a truth about our inner feelings. It’s easy to feel forever alone when fumbling an online interaction when there’s no one there to put an arm around you are tell you it’s not a big deal.

We end up chasing our own tails sometimes, constantly worrying about what our posts will say about us or how we are perceived. We are complicit in projecting the aura of someone who isn’t feeling alone at all, we continue the lie that everyone is doing okay lest we be the lonely loser. This in turn prevents others knowing they are not alone in… well… being alone.

A favourite web creator of mine Paul Neave created a site called Lonely Tweets, which simply reposts tweets with the word “lonely” in them. It’s kind of melancholic to just sit there and watch the loneliness roll by. The site asks a poignant question“We are able to share our most intimate thoughts and feelings with the world at any given moment. But is anyone listening?”

I guess that’s my real fear, the real feeling behind the title of this loose series; that all my words will fall on deaf ears and my attempts at persuasion and reconciliation will come to naught. That my work will be left unread in some dusty corner of the internet , forgotten… and alone. Shouting into the void is to let the words pour out of you and disappear –unheard — into the blackness. It’s what a lot of us feel we are doing online and it’s what a lot of activists, internet saviours, and follower counting egoists don’t realize they’re are actually doing sometimes.

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I’ve increasingly been favouring direct engagement platforms like Skype or Teamspeak over the cold, controlled, and very public environments of large social networks. We know from experience the human brain responds in incredibly complex ways to the sound of the human voice, even more so to face to face interaction. Social media is good to supplement our real life connectedness, but it can’t replace it. It’s like eating food with no nutritional value; we feel full up on social interaction but we’re really malnourished. You just can’t replace real human contact.

Touch is a strong repellent of loneliness. I’m sure most of us feel much better after I hug. Living alone for the past months after being in relationships, and looking after parents, I know I’ve needed a hug and not had access to one. I have, at times, spent a portion of my day on Twitter or Facebook and then realized I was actually just feeling lonelier.

I recently decided to quit Twitter due to my own destructive relationship with the platform, but the messages I received when I announced I was doing so made me realize I wasn’t as alone or unvalued as I sometimes felt. The same is true for many of you out there. If you get into a one to one conversation with someone without character limits or public virtue signalling you will often find you are valued and yes even loved.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go outside and see some people. I’m feeling kind of lonely on my own in here.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.