Mark Zuckerberg announced over the weekend that he and his longtime girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, had gotten married. He did so over Facebook. I wish them every happiness. It does seem a little bit ironic that the news broke just days after New York Times “wellness” columnist Tara Parker Pope pondered in print: “Does Facebook Turn People Into Narcissists?”, and in the same month that Stephen Marche wondered in the Atlantic: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Ironic because the answers are, well, yes, and yes.
I’m not on Facebook, for a whole lot of reasons, most of which boil down to an aversion to having people know stuff about me that I don’t know they know (control freak!) and to just being busy. I also have a very high loneliness threshold, which is something Marche talks about in his piece. Loneliness, he points out, is “not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state.” You can be lonely at a crowded party; you—or at least I—can be happiest at the beach, alone, in September, at five p.m., just as the shadows get long. I live way out in western Montgomery County, and when people find this out, they commiserate about my long commute into Center City. “I like being alone in my car,” I tell them. That may be why Facebook seems so peculiar to me. If you’re my friend, I’m keeping in touch with you, via phone calls or e-mails or visits or the occasional lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant. If you’re not my friend, I’m not. That our children went to preschool together, or, worse, that we went to preschool together doesn’t make you my friend. I just think it’s best to be frank about that.
Because the truth is, all the intricate loops of sharing and caring Zuckerberg and his fellow social media warriors insist on entangling us in aren’t making most of us any happier. We aren’t intimate despite all the connections and networking. There’s a wonderfully telling paragraph in Marche’s piece: In the late ’40s, he writes, “the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. … This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring.” We’re reduced to paying people to pay attention to us: to do our nails, rub our backs, listen to our worries, counsel us through grief. Oh, the Internet is wonderful for, say, misogynistic NRA proponents who think Obama was born abroad and believe in alien abduction. Anyone can find a niche in Online World—hey, look, a whole chat-room full of folks who are just as vindictive and paranoid and delusional as me! But are they gonna bring you chicken soup when you’re sick, or water your tomato plants for the week you’re at the Shore? Hell, no!
See, here’s the thing. My husband Doug and I recently refinanced our mortgage. The refinancing papers had to be notarized, so I left work a little early last Thursday and drove home to western Montgomery County and met Doug at the notary’s office. The notary looked through the papers and announced that we needed two witnesses who knew us to sign that we were who we were saying we were. This totally flummoxed Doug. He’s on Facebook. He’s very popular on Facebook. He has a ton of friends on Facebook. But he couldn’t think of one actual person in the town we’ve called home for 18 years to call on short notice and ask to come to the notary’s office to serve as our witness. So I called my friends, one of whom I’d recently picked up, with her bike, in my car when she rode too far and suddenly realized, 35 miles out, that she couldn’t make it back to where she’d parked her car, and the other of whom I’ve traded babysitting and plant-sitting and pet-sitting with for years.
So I just wanted to wish for Mark and Priscilla, along with decades of marital bliss, a few real friends, true friends—not the kind who will sue you endlessly and accuse you of cheating them even as you make them unbelievably wealthy, or the kind who’ll renounce American citizenship and move to Singapore just for tax purposes, which isn’t going to make him much use to you when that visit to the notary rolls around. There are still a few things in this madcap digital age that work better face to face. I happen to believe friendship is one.