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Feeling Lonely on the Net

In February of 2000, Jakob Nielsen published a post entitled “Does the Internet Make Us Lonely?” In it, he questions the veracity of a recent Stanford study that concluded—via a series of surveys and analysis—that people who use the Internet spend less time socializing with their real-world friends and family.

Nielsen questioned the positioning of the analysis, pointing out that though people may be less reliant on their geographically close communities, the Internet has provided new types of community and communication. So the Internet may diminish 20th century forms of social connection—telephone calls, in-person gatherings—but it created an entirely new kind of digitally social life for the 21st century. In answering the question of the post, Nelsen surmises that, well… it depends.

Since then, the topic has been taken up a number of times by writers and researchers, most recently during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Each new crest of technological possibility—blogging, message boards, social media, online video—brings in a re-examination of the question under new light. It’s an interesting question, given the original authorial intent of the web as connective tissue via the world’s global networks.

It is, of course, most interesting in that it is a question that can’t really be answered.

In the mid-1990’s, Carolyn Burke began publishing to an online diary in a format that would soon become a standard for blogs. Every few days she would post her musings and ideas, uncut and unfiltered. As a writer by trade, she wanted to connect to her audience, to open the world to the way she thought about herself and the world. In so doing, she made her readers apart of her journey as a writer.

Justin Hall, with his offbeat and brutally introspective blog Links from the Underground, revealed more about himself online than he felt comfortable doing among his friends at Swarthmore college. In his late-night posts, he would write about his own personal experiences, laying bare every flaw in his character, every truth about himself. Hall later admitted that he used the web as almost a form of therapy. The people that came to his blog, and left comments, or emailed him notes of support, were a sounding board in the vastness of the web.

An early version of Justin Hall’s site

Over time, Hall used the popularity of his site to connect even more people to the web. He drove around the country, teaching high school students how to use the web. He went on talk shows to share his love of the web. Far from being a lonely existence, the web was the place where Hall found his people.

Classmates.com was created in 1995 as a way of reaching out into the empty abyss and finding past connections. Using the site—paid at first, but later free—members could connect to former high school classmates and reconnect. “This is what many classmates hope for when their high school days are long past,” creator Randy Conrads said at the time, “another chance, as adults, to go back and get it right this time.”

A few years later, in 1997, Sona Mehring created a website to help her connect with family and friends during an extremely difficult time in her life. Mehring continued growing the site, and began opening it up to other members, calling it CaringBridge. For two decades, members of CaringBridge have used the site to create a central place to contact family, friends, and even total strangers during trying times and medical emergencies. It has used the power of a globally decentralized web to tie together people who would otherwise feel lost and separated from one another.

On July 14, 2004, a user with the nickname lonely posted a single sentence to a forum called MovieCodec.com, mostly used for dealing with the technical details of video formats. Its title read i am lonely will anyone speak to me. The message read simply:

please will anyone speak to about anything to me

Within a half hour, one sarcastic response flew in, somebody not ready to take the original poster seriously. The next week, a third poster responded with genuine concern: “Why are you lonely? Are you on your own?” After that, the responses came flooding in.

Through an accident in the algorithm, the thread began ranking high on Google for the search “I am lonely.” Forums like MovieCodec already ranked high on Google because of their high quality and technically accurate content. This random post about being lonely simply was swept up alongside those rankings to the top of the list.

A screenshot of the original “I am lonely” thread

It turns out that many people—feeling lonely in their offline lives—turned to the Internet for help. And when they did, they found the thread. “dude, i typed in ‘I am lonely’ in google, and your post was the very first response,” the next respondent wrote, “does that make you the most popular loneliest person on the planet?”

From there, it grew. From the sarcastic and far-fetched to the earnest and sublime, discussions threaded inside of discussions filled the responses on the forum. Moviecodec.com’s creator hopped in to mention that he too, on occasion, felt alone. People found mutual friends through the thread. The conversations inside the thread continued for years, and many found solace in others with a similar query. Through an unimaginable chance, the thread became a cure for the very malady it originated from—the feeling of loneliness.

What does it say when a medium that makes people feel alone is used to combat loneliness? What does it say when it is successful? Nielsen, writing over twenty years ago about the Stanford study makes a critical point. The Internet and the so-called “real world” are not too separate places. One does not go to one place to get away from the other. They are each extensions of one another. Our digital lives are tied to our real world lives. And so on. And so both have the potnetial to make us feel more alone—or more connected—then we ever would eslewehre.

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