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We are more lonely online than ever before

4 min read

Years ago, we millennials knew this to be true: social capital was in decline, communities were degrading, and we were getting lonelier.

The key explanatory text was Bowling Alone (2000), by the academic Robert D Putnam. In the suburbs of America, Putnam argued, TV, work patterns, technology and other cultural changes were conspiring to create a society that simply didn’t take part in collective endeavours like visiting neighbours, organising politically, or going to church. Once you saw 2000s Britain through Putnam’s lens, things made more sense, not least the 2011 riots, in which people wrecked shops and businesses in communities they were nominally a part of.

But social internet was on the rise. Where once media saw the one address the many, now the many could address the many. Some hoped a new form of community cohesion would arise. Few were ready for the huge role social media platforms would play in our lives – least of all the companies behind them.

They spent the best part of 20 years failing to decide if they ran publishers or platforms. For those of us working in news, it was discombobulating. A meeting with an internet giant might yield a live-streamed town hall with politicians involved, or chats about how our rigorously produced content could fit in their trending topics. Another would see them giving increasingly evasive answers over whether they were good on their public pledges to fund news publishers. 

The platforms prevaricated, but did take a degree of civic responsibility. They tried – some harder than others – to stop racism, spam, criminality, and abuse, and attempted to offer moderation around the discussion of news and politics. 

All that is dead. Westminster’s politico-media elite is using a social network in which people’s takes on the day’s events are fringed by context-free meme pile-ons, footage of extreme acts of violence, random people trying to sell NFTs, and adverts accompanied by community notes, because they were published by scammers. A possible life raft, Meta’s Threads, is so unwilling to engage with tricky content it’s even limiting political content in people’s feeds.

As my former colleague Ryan Broderick puts it: “reporters and researchers highlighting bad moderation and trust and safety failures and the occasional worthless congressional hearing [...] has amounted to little more than public policy LARPing.” In the UK, those of us who watched politicians and journalists flounder their way through the Cambridge Analytica debacle were right to suspect a better internet would not result.

Broderick and others like the Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel describe an “evaporating web”, marked by an erosion of standards and the growing irrelevance of news across platforms, one where we simply don’t know what each other is doing at any one time.

It coincides with what cultural critics like Ted Gioia deem the post-entertainment era. If entertainment was once eating art, the argument goes, now entertainment itself is in trouble, with the Disneys and Warner Bros of the world in dire straits, and digital feeds now taking precedence. Broderick argues this unbundling is nothing new; as he points out, the social media platforms themselves are in the process of fragmenting further.

Perhaps things will reset, but it clearly heralds the decline of the collective cultural moment. In the analog era, it was a safe bet our peers had seen The Office last night, that they or their children were reading Harry Potter, that they’d gone to the cinema to see Lord of the Rings. A fragmented youth culture of smaller, dedicated fan bases takes its place; that brings benefits, but less common ground across social divides.

The internet was never going to be a silver bullet that fixed postmodern society’s declining civic camaraderie. But 2024’s internet certainly is worse in this regard. Online, we are somehow more lonely together than ever before.

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