If we’re all fine with sex, drugs and drinking, then is being lonely the last taboo for young people?
Exactly one month after Christmas day 2005, the skeleton of a 38-year-old woman was found in a bedsit in north London. Post had piled up, Christmas presents lay unopened and the television was on. Joyce Vincent had been dead for three years. Nobody noticed. Not even officials paid to take notice, noticed. On the television images of people not there still flickered through Joyce’s living room, just as people no longer there must have flickered through her life. Joyce Vincent disappeared long before she disappeared.
If it is hard to imagine how someone could end up so alone ten years ago, it is almost unthinkable now. In our world of Facebook and facetime, the idea of loneliness is in danger of becoming faceless, but a 2010 study showed that one in ten Britons feel lonely, with the young more lonely than the old. The face of loneliness isn’t wrinkled, it’s pixelated. It seems that the more connected we become, the further apart we get.
In the Lonely Society report nearly 60% of 18-34 year olds said they felt lonely often or sometimes. This is an extraordinary figure when you consider the opportunity for interaction now available, but it clearly shows that the kind of interaction matters more than the frequency. If you are feeling lonely then Chat Roulette is not going to make you feel better, unless you’re a middle aged man with a penchant for waggling your penis at bored teenagers. Other social networks might be less ridiculous, but they can be more attractive to the credulous. 500 friends on Facebook don’t translate to names in the phonebook.
Facebook’s mantra is to ‘connect’ people but it connects them in a superficial way: a filtered artifice of friendship that you have to plug in to begin. All the nuance and character of a person are lost in the parameters of a profile, their smiling face replaced by a smiley face. You might be talking to a friend but you are talking to them the way Mark Zuckerburg tells you to.
And why in the name of Sir Tim Berners-Lee do people actually use emoticons? He may have created the World Wide Web to be free but that doesn’t mean you have to insert a jaundiced winky-face at the end of an arsehole comment about how much rosé wine you drank last night. Emoticons are the result of instant chat and slow wit, the sickly digital burp of a society – sorry online community – bloated by sugary fast-moods. Fortunately something so rubbish often ends up in the bin before you can say semi-colon close brackets. Facebook and Twitter can often be the camouflage that young people use to disguise their loneliness in a forest of friends and followers.
Stephen Fry, one of the most followed men in the world, said recently that he gets extremely lonely. And there’s the rub. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have online or even offline, you can still feel all alone in a large crowd. Loneliness is much more a state of mind than a state of being and is therefore very difficult to solve. It’s subjective, subversive and a ruddy pain in the neck. It can also be extremely dangerous if you have a serious case, which is why it’s so important for people like Stephen Fry to speak up.
More on the great Fry: Stephen Fry’s suicide attempt – A lesson for us all
He gives a popular face to unpopular issues and an eloquent voice to garbled discussions. His star shines a much needed light onto etiolated taboos. And there is a peculiar stigma attached to being lonely. Not many would admit it to other people because not many would admit it to themselves. There seems to be something ugly about being lonely. This is especially problematic for the young where image is always everything but online it becomes the only thing. And the murky image of loneliness is nearly always misunderstood because it’s hardly ever talked about. Only through the illumination that discussion brings can we get rid of the shadow cast by prejudice. But on the internet, as we all know, it can be all too easy to ‘ignore.’ Hopefully voices like Stephen Fry’s will be impossible to ignore and maybe now people will be more likely to listen to an issue that usually goes unheard.
There does seem to be a gradual change in attitude and a willingness to explore these problems with movies like the upcoming Disconnect and the documentary Dreams of a Life. Loneliness is a problem that will not be solved by online likes and comments, but by simple everyday kindness. An awareness of other people, not other users. So stop reading this, call a friend and go for a drink.
But not before you have liked this page and left nice comments. ; )
And if you’re feeling really lonely: New craze in ‘love pillows’ depicting male characters